Time-traveling through life. A short story added to my online Fiction folder. Sometimes I need to leave the world of science behind, shake things up, and let those loose associations run wild. It’s funny how I appreciate the systematic rigorous nature of the scientific endeavour, but when I get to be creative, it’s mostly about mad worlds, magic, and metaphysical somersaults of logic.
If you, like me, enjoy playful ramblings about time, bizarre remarks about the metric system, and strange sensations of multiple personalities, here you go: Some times.
The great sci-fi author Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: ‘Billy Pilgrim has become adrift in time’.
This sentence has remained etched in my mind, popping up in my thoughts at the most curious moments. I feel I have developed a bond with dear Billy over the years, and with his help, in this particular point in time, I would like to make another point about time, if Mr. Vonnegut would allow me to borrow him a little. I am convinced that Mr. Vonnegut is, or at the moment, was, a person filled with sympathy for his struggling fellow writer, and would look kindly upon my loan. I promise to return Billy in the best of conditions, at most a little rattled by the additional experiments with time which we plan to put him through, but frankly that would be nothing new to Billy.
I hope that Billy, being an experienced time traveler, like most of us, will be up to the challenge. So, Vonnegut wrote ‘Billy Pilgrim has become adrift in time’, when in fact I would like to argue that Billy, like most of us, is tightly entwined to the only time that anybody has: the now.
But we humans, one could say, are very promiscuous creatures when it comes to time—we are not satisfied with the now that we have. We brazenly keep flirting with any number of moments in the past and present all the while having the particular one with whom we are mostly intimately involved.
Considering this inherent promiscuity of ours, perhaps it is not such as a surprise that I once discovered an altogether new phenomenon of time, which I would like to formulate like this, if Billy would like to join me in the experience: ‘Billy Pilgrim’s now has become entangled with others’.’ I had intended to say ‘his other nows’, when I stopped to think: if we experience a now, me and Billy, how do we know if it’s ours?
Conversely, if we do experience this now, what claims could anyone utter, that could possibly deprive us of it?
Perhaps the question we should be asking actually concerns our identity. Who are we, the experiencers of this now, who so confidently call ourselves ‘me’ and ‘Billy’? I cannot speak for Billy, at least not without taking quite some more creative authorial freedoms, but let us give him some rest while I put in some honest work on this myself, so you shouldn’t think that I am one of those people who lets someone else do all the heavy lifting.
One cloudy afternoon I was sitting on the steps of a red-bricked Methodist church in a perfectly sleepy little town. It was not long after I had first met Billy, come to think of it, or perhaps it was a little bit before, with these moments far in the past you can never be quite sure. Whichever the case, I was sitting there, out in the open. The people of afternoon promenades had retreated into the safeties of their homes, leaving me in a respectful solitude when time struck. My gaze was gliding along the well-kept lawn, descending to the groves, where it slipped onto the trees, sliding along the white bark of young birches, bouncing over their greenery, and landing on the skies, high with clouds.
From my bones I could feel another gaze reaching for the same skies; from another now. It was there, sitting inside me on the cold stone steps, a quarter of an inch to the left of my being.
It is rather strange, that a person like me, born and raised in the gentle care of the marvellous metric system, should revert to the use of the inch at this moment, more precisely the bizarre length of 2.54 centimeters. I could have said, that somebody was sitting inside me, approximately half a centimeter to the left of my being, or 0.635 cm, if I preferred to be exact. But I did not! Perhaps this was a question of literary taste that the two sitters couldn’t agree on, and the consensus was, that in the English language surely the inch would sit better, and moreover its folksy approximate feel was more suited for creative ramblings than that of the more distinctly scientific centimeter. One could go as far as to argue, that in the case of having another being sitting inside of you, it was not a question of a few millimeters, or even if it was, one would not be able to tell the difference.
So then, if we did experience that the alignment was not in spatial terms exactly perfect, and let’s be honest, who of us is, perhaps we could say that we thought it was off in the scale of a centimeter or so, then say, no, let’s call it an inch, but that seems a little bit much, it must be less than a full inch, OK, let’s call it a quarter, the sound of that word is somehow more appropriate than ‘half’. Now whether I was on the right or the left side, how it was determined is difficult to say, maybe I ended up winning the argument, or losing it, in saying that I was the one on the right.
Now for the reason for my presumptuous loan of Mr Pilgrim: I am itching to ask Billy whether he ever experienced something like this, like somebody else sitting inside of him, and who and when he thought it would be, and if thoughts on the alignment ever popped up for him. Was he a righty or a lefty?
Questions about the identity of the owner of this invading moment into a moment of my own felt entirely unnecessary to me. The visiting moment was me, of course, who else could it be? I thought she must have been from the future. But future is a misleading concept (you can ask Billy about that!) when all there is, is a now, and perhaps the same is true for ‘me’. Perhaps it wasn’t me at all who visited myself, but him, for all I know, after all I do feel strangely drawn to Billy in these matters of time.
But when a now comes barging into mine, I find myself inclined to claim the ownership of a now nevertheless. What else are we, apart from our nows, now really? The rest comes attached to the now. Names, like Billy; places like, planet Tralfamadore; objects, like walking sticks, if your now happens to come with greater maturity of age or a general walking impediment attached; clothes, or no clothes, or in the process of hastily removing them from your person; interpersonal intrigues: maybe you are a lover, or a leader, or entrusted with a dark secret that you should have kept; embarrassed tupes; great fates; chardonnays; what can I say? It’s a buffet.
O the now, the miraculous time of living where all memories take place, where everything, victories, losses, Freudian slips, laughing fits, and the devilish business of marketing tips—all that is of the stuff that can happen, happen.
When I think about it hard enough, I come close to panic, in fact. It’s a pretty big thing to think about, or short actually, and it feels damn transient somehow. This is it. Everybody, in a matter of fact, is now. Nobody ever was, or will be anytime else! What do you say about that, Billy? Billy? Where did he go? Did he get unstuck to another now, now again? It feels sort of lonely, this now being the only thing there is. Where are everybody else? They seem pinned down, separated from me, in their nows. I miss all the other me’s, the ones I can remember, some of them were pretty nice, if you ask me. What ever happened to them? I mean, they are no longer. Their nows are not. It could make you cry. Am I afraid of death, I wonder? That’s where all the time stops, they say, no more now, not that I’d know.
There there, you might say, at least if you were somewhat emphatically inclined, and I sort of wish you are, and if you weren’t, well, maybe it would be about time to be. For example, that’s all in how you look at things, you might add, and it would not be a bad thing to say. That’s what the aliens taught Billy Pilgrim, in any case, moving about in time as they wished. “If you protest, if you think that death is a terrible thing, then you have not understood a word I’ve said”, he was very firm on this, our Billy. You can go all the way to the end of the universe, where time stops, if you want, but why would you want to? Sure, maybe once, just to the edge, out of curiosity, but after that, just don’t. There are nicer places to be. Maybe that’s where Billy is now.
How badly I treated some of those nows, just wishing they were over, hurrying for others to come! My apologies, but you weren’t very good nows, we just didn’t get along. Cruel existence indeed, when all there is, you don’t like. Sad places, ‘cause no one will like to visit. Not Billy, not the aliens, not me. Well, they are not now!
This worldwide now, alienating as it may feel, I dare say is nothing but a big One, and the only at that. It stretches all over the globe, instantaneous as it is, it is there and it is here right now, with me, with the fat snoring neighbor, with a sleeping man in India with a turban on his head, or now that sounds impractical, let us say with a turban lying in wait on his bedside table, and also with the waking man in the Andes, breathing the fresh mountain air, perhaps freshened even more by the mouthful of green coca leaves before a hard days work. This now is with all my distant friends, and it’s doing all kinds of things, I imagine, since who wouldn’t do all kinds of things, thinking they were all alone in their private little nows, not stopping to think of the only common thing there is.
Those things they are doing, anyhow, I better not elaborate on, the point being that all those souls I thought so absent, most to me nonexistent, here they all are. So close, in fact, I should be able to reach and touch them right now, well, when else? What do you say, can you feel me nearby, can you see my friend Billy (he’s the guy I’m pointing at and grinning, he’s too dazed to wave himself)? If you’d like, anytime, come visit me back, we can climb a tall hill and make paper planes, that I’d call as good a now as any.
Perhaps that’s what it was on the church steps, perhaps it was a reaching, a good start, though I only got as far as a quarter of an inch to the right of my being.
Well, I’ve been stretching this now into awhile already, it should be time to return Billy to his owner. But I feel a little bit sly, I can’t help but play with the thought of performing a trick, just for a bit. I’m hoping Mr. Vonnegut won’t mind, or maybe even notice, him being a little bit indisposed at the moment. I heard he gave in for curiosity and went to take a peek at the end part of things. So maybe just for a while I dare slip myself in instead of Billy, and take a look around, I always did want to talk to those aliens, and get the hang of flowing around in time, if I could. Hey, maybe while I’m at it, I should go say hi to myself on those cold stone steps of the Methodist church, I think I would be thrilled.