James bought Gabbi a timeshare package in the nineties. Ten one-week stays, one each year of the decade.
“The man has no imagination,” she told me. “Why not the sixties? Or the twenties?”
I didn’t want to hear about her husband. I rolled over and looked out the window at the garden. Outside the grass was green, the air clear enough to see through. At the far end of the yard, a sapling stretched up towards the sky like an uncertain child.
“He wanted to relieve his football days,” Gabbi was saying. “That’s why.”
I kept my eyes fixed on the little tree. “Do the neighbors ever get suspicious,” I said, “about why so many people with weird haircuts come through here?”
“The company takes care of it. I don’t know the details.” She slid close. For a moment I was sure she’d climb on top of me again, and only the two of us would matter.
She smiled and tossed me a shirt. “Time to get to work.”
Everything was gray when we pulled up to the agency building, the smog thick and bitter enough to taste even through our masks. But now, in the garden of the little red-brick bungalow, it was easy to think none of that was real, at least until I lit the grill.
The agency checked for contraband before they let you travel—they made a big deal about their precautions against cross-contamination. But Gabbi assured me how easy it was to get things through.
“All my friends bring their own food. They want a particular experience. This is no different.”
Security agents all wordlessly took her cash, until this time. I nearly fainted when the agent saw our package and his eyes widened at its size. We were going to 1996 and she was getting impatient, worried that she’d run out of trips before we had finished.
“Please,” she said, and put an arm around me. “It’s his birthday. I wanted to cook him something special.” She slipped the agent a second fold of cash. “You can’t get this kind of quality back then.” He let us through.
She’d winked at me as they strapped us into the machine, proud of her persuasiveness. Really, though, her talent was sniffing out someone in need.
As I grilled I forced myself to think about the sun on my face, about how big that tree must have grown up to be. I wore my mask so I wouldn’t have to smell the smoke.
At first it upset me that we never went anywhere. We’d traveled all this way, endured the nausea and elevated cancer risk for a trip I’d never be able to afford myself, all to watch television. I’d come to experience mild weather and dumb optimism, not the commercials of her youth.
“Soon,” she’d say, kissing my neck, “we’ll be able to do whatever we want, however we want. No more hiding.”
Sometimes I turned on C-SPAN and tried to find some portent of my own reality, of how wrong things would go. But it was only the ordinary workings of ordinary people.
After ’94 I let my frustration go. What would I gain from seeing people on the street in their old-timey outfits, living their lives, not knowing all of this had already vanished?
At night we drove around in the sedan that came with the rental. We’d park in a different neighborhood, then set off on foot, me with a backpack and her with a big beach tote. We looked like any other couple.
That’s a lie: we looked like mother and son.
If we heard a dog sniffing around a yard, we’d throw meat over the fence and listen to the sounds of jaws chewing. I pictured grateful tails wagging. Little by little, we got rid of it.
The bones I smashed with a hammer. I buried the shards at the foot of the sapling in the backyard. Supposedly it was good for the soil.
Our last night in ’96, Gabbi bought two steaks of bluefin tuna and seared them lightly on each side. She smiled beatifically as she set the plate in front of me.
“I don’t eat meat,” I said.
“It’s not meat,” she said. “It’s fish. You can’t get this at home anymore.”
After dinner, she asked me to go somewhere with her. It was three in the morning; we had to be out by eight. I said yes.
She drove us to the local high school and cut the engine. “James and I met here,” she said. She pulled an old red and yellow letterman jacket from her tote. Only when I saw the logo, a pouncing wildcat identical to the sign outside the school, did I realize she didn’t just mean 1996.
She picked up the jacket and inhaled deeply. “That’s probably why he chose the nineties. An anniversary gift.” She folded the jacket, opened the car door, and left it at the bus stop in front of the school.
We finished smuggling the last of it in ’98. The plan was perfect, she reassured me, but for years I woke in the middle of the night, convinced someone was pounding on my door.
’99 should have been our first real vacation together. We could stroll outside, arm in arm. She called me a week before and said she had the flu. No offer to reschedule.
After she hung up I spent a long time sitting on the floor of my room, listening to my roommates argue, thinking about that long-ago day when we’d laid naked on her sofa. “If it were just the two of us,” she’d whispered, “you could live here. We’d never get out of bed.”
Years later, after the agency had been raided and shut down, I rode my bike out to that suburb. The house was still there, its windows boarded up and its charm long since faded, just like the neighborhood around it. I jumped the fence and walked around to the backyard. I wanted to see the tree I’d fertilized with bone, something that had flourished because I nurtured it. But there was only dirt and gravel and broken glass, as if nothing had ever grown there at all.