KASMA MAGAZINE

Of Course You Can Go Back Again

By James Hacker

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Artwork by Jose Baetas.


There’s only seven stories she says, sitting across from you at the little coffee shop on the corner while the rain falls outside the fogged-up windows. Only seven: Quest, Rebirth, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and some others she can’t remember. It doesn’t matter, the point is that there’s lots of stories, but really there’s only seven and everything is just a variation on one of them. She thinks there’s some kind of deep truth in that, something about the universal nature of shared experiences.

You think it’s a sign that people aren’t as creative as they think they are. Otherwise they’d think up some more stories.

That was evidently the wrong thing to say, because two weeks later she dumps you, in bright sunlight in the park across town. It’s spring and everything is just starting to bloom and she’s saying I’m sorry this just isn’t working, her eyes big and expressive and barely holding back her tears.

You part ways, she turns left at the park gate while you go right, and you never see each other again, not this time around.

You’ve always found movement to be the best therapy, so you go for a long aimless drive before you go home. It doesn’t really help - you go home upset, spend days missing her and her laugh and her cooking and the curves of her body. They say you can’t go back again, but you know that’s wrong - the question isn’t if you can go back, to her and her laugh and her cooking and her body, but if you should.

You mope for a week before you say screw it and go get The Machine. You go back to the lab one night, the building empty except for the hum of the overhead lights and the echo of your footsteps on the linoleum floors. You swipe your badge on the security door and there it is, a palm-sized black box, sitting alone on a lab bench. You pick it up, press the black button on top, and

There’s only seven stories she says, sitting across from you at the little coffee shop on the corner while the rain falls outside the fogged-up windows. Only seven: Quest, Rebirth, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and some others she can’t remember. It doesn’t matter, the point is that there’s lots of stories, but really there’s only seven and everything is just a variation on one of them. She thinks there’s some kind of deep truth in that, something about the universal nature of shared experiences.

“That’s fascinating,” you say, “but what about stories with no plot? What about Kerouac, or Seinfeld?”

She laughs and that must have been the right thing to say, because two weeks later you’re walking in the park in the spring sunshine, all the snow has melted and everything is starting to bloom, and she kisses you on the cheek and tells you she loves you.

That fall the two of you move in together. You throw a housewarming party and all your friends are there, her colleagues and your labmates and that cute new graduate assistant who spends the entire night giving you eyes from across the room. One thing leads to another and a few weeks later you’re working late when the grad assistant walks in on you and without a word the two of you are going at it on your workbench.

She finds out, because of course she does. A week later you’re sitting on your couch in an empty living room, surrounded by the few household items she didn’t take when she moved out, drinking a beer because your long drive didn’t calm you down again, so you pick up The Machine, thumb the button, and

She laughs and that must have been the right thing to say, because two weeks later you’re walking in the park in the spring sunshine, all the snow has melted and everything is starting to bloom, and she kisses you on the cheek and tells you she loves you.

That fall the two of you move in together. When the cute new graduate assistant starts work you have her reassigned to another lab. You throw a housewarming party and all your friends are there, her colleagues and your lab mates, and everyone goes home late, drunk and happy.

The two of you settle into a brief period of domestic bliss, trading cooking and cleaning duties, spending nights out with friends or on the couch watching movies, ending brief violent arguments about whose turn it is to clean the oven with energetic make-up sex. The seasons change, the crisp fall giving way to dreary grey winter. Your work picks up - you begin spending 8, 9, 10 hours a day in the lab, nights and weekends, working towards what you can feel is something major. You see each other less and less, but for a time it seems alright.

All of a sudden it is not alright. You come home one night, three hours later than planned, to find her sitting alone on the couch, half a glass of red wine on the coffee table in front of her.

“Can we talk?” she asks, and you realize suddenly that the two of you haven’t had a complete conversation in weeks, haven’t had dinner together in a month, haven’t had sex in longer. The conversation unfolds exactly as you know it will before she stands and walks out of your life again.

You take an aimless drive to calm yourself. It doesn’t work, so when you come home you pull out The Machine, press the button, and

She’s inexplicably cold, angry with you, but it quickly passes, and the two of you settle into a brief period of domestic bliss, trading cooking and cleaning duties, spending nights out with friends or on the couch watching movies, ending brief violent arguments about whose turn it is to clean the oven with energetic make-up sex. The seasons change, the crisp fall giving way to the dreary grey winter. Your work in the lab begins to pick up, and you find yourself once again being pulled away from her. You know how that ends, so you say not this time and move labs. Your hours are shorter, your responsibilities easier to manage, your time your own. You spend more time with her, more Tuesday night dinners and Friday nights out.

It works, for a time. You are happy. You watch her finish her thesis, you cheer for her at her graduation, you toast her first book deal. You take a comfortable, undemanding job in a corporate lab. You get really into craft beer.

Book deal in hand, she begins to focus more on her writing. She disappears for entire days into her own work while you continue to pull further away from yours, your time in the lab turning into a chore instead of a joy. When your old lab finally announces their breakthrough you get drunk and sleep alone on your couch, waking up with a hangover and the nagging certainty that you’ve blown it somewhere.

The two of you grow more distant. You sometimes go days, weeks without seeing each other, as she embarks on some new book tour while you put on weight and forget to shave for days at a time. You know what’s coming, you can feel the mingled disdain and sympathy in her eyes each time she looks at you, matching the disgust and self-pity you see every time you look in the mirror. To forestall the inevitable you dig The Machine out of the closet you hid it in, hit the button, and

The seasons change, the crisp fall giving way to the dreary grey winter. Your work in the lab begins to pick up, and you find yourself once again being pulled away from her. You know how that ends, so you get more proactive in managing your time, making sure you spend enough time with her to keep the relationship running. You settle into a comfortable adult routine, but now it’s marred by constant fighting, a lurking bitterness you’ve never felt before, a hardening of her eyes when you start to disagree, a clenching of your jaw before the argument you know is about to start.

As the tension mounts you find your time with the lab to be a welcome respite from the emotional minefield at home, more a shelter than a distraction. The less time the two of you spend together the happier you both seem to be.

Finally something snaps. You come home early one night, still smarting from an offhand comment she made that morning, and have a beer, then a second. You’re partway through a third when you hear the lock turn and she comes through the door, her eyes freezing with cold disdain at the site of the empty beers in front of you.

“What’s wrong?” you ask, not bothering with small talk.

“You mean now, or in general?” she asks.

“In general,” you respond.

She looks at you for a long moment, then sets her bag down, very carefully, at her feet.

“How many times have we been here?” she asks. “How many times have you reset us? How many times have you reset me?”

You freeze. There’s no way, you think. Absolutely no way. You’re the one pressing the button, you’re the principal here, no one else is going back with you. Right?

With a sudden sinking feeling you realize you don’t know that at all, and you have to admit that you don’t really know how The Machine works. What have you been doing with each press of the button? What have you been doing to her?

“Five,” you finally say, after a long silence. “We’ve been here five times.”

She stares at you. “Things keep going wrong,” you say, shrugging uselessly.

“Things keep going wrong,” she says. “And you keep resetting, to try and get them right.” You nod.

“And you decided yourself that we should try again, time after time,” she says, her voice rising. “Is that it? That’s not how this works, ok? You don’t get to make that decision for me, ok?”

She’s shouting now, you can feel things escalating, and you decide that cowardice and The Machine’s uncertain consequences are better than this emotional free fire zone, so you reach into your pocket for The Machine, feeling for the button on top. She gives you a hard look. “Don’t you dare,” she says. “Don’t you-”

“Fucking dare,” she says, sitting across from you at the little coffee shop on the corner while the rain falls outside the fogged up windows. She snaps silent for a moment, gives you a look of pure hatred, and stands.

“Don’t ever speak to me again. No matter how many times you press that button, don't ever speak to me again,” she says before storming out.

You finish your coffee, alone. Outside the rain is slackening, and a single sunbeam splashes against the window.

You stay at the lab, and when the new grad assistant arrives and starts making eyes at you, you let things happen. Within a week the two of you are going at it on your workbench. By the end of the year the two of you have moved in together. By the time the heavy heat of summer arrives you’ve had a spectacular fight. Within a week she leaves, and you are, once again, alone. You don’t use The Machine this time.

You throw yourself into work, finishing your research, publishing your findings to great acclaim. You save enough money to buy a too-large house in the nice part of town and leave most of it empty. You put The Machine in a drawer and forget about it.

You age. You attend weddings, engagement parties, baby showers. You make some half-hearted attempts at serious relationships, a number of awkward first dates that end in faux-cheery goodbyes that you know means nothing, or in awkward sloppy sex with no phone call the next day.

Years later you are grocery shopping when you round a corner in the produce aisle and there she is, looking older and wiser and at least as pretty as you remember her, trying to decide between the kale or the chard. You both stop and stare while your brains catch up with what your bodies already know, chemistry flooding your systems and pulling your bodies imperceptibly closer through the gulf between you.

“Hi,” you say in unison. You jokingly haggle over the last bottle of coconut water. The windows are fogging up against the encroaching winter chill, and you barely notice as the rain starts to fall outside. Your eyes catch the faint line of a missing ring on her left hand.

You part ways in the parking lot with an amiable wave. When you call her two days later you’re honestly surprised that she says yes to dinner. But dinner turns into drinks turns into a kiss, tentative and shy at first before opening into an electric passion, an acknowledgement of your connection and a clear desire for more. That turns into more dinners, more drinks, more kisses, until one day you find yourself helping her move her boxes into your too-large house, combining your collective middle-aged baggage under one roof again.

It’s comfortable, stable, mature. You communicate, fight, compromise, make up, make love, love one another. Unencumbered by expectations you are free at last to be yourselves. You never marry or have children. But you are happy.

Much later, both of you leaving middle age and approaching your long twilight years, you have one of your rare but explosive fights. It starts simply but expands quickly to encompass your myriad friction points, escalating from calm discussion to raised voices to shouting to tears. Without resolution you walk outside and start your car for an aimless drive, hoping to calm yourself through the therapy of motion and the unspooling of miles through your windshield.

You’re upset and you don’t even see the other car run its stop sign, one minute you’re shifting into second and muttering to yourself, then everything is bright lights and a never-ending crash of noise, shattered pieces of glass suspended in the air around you like tiny stars orbiting your head, red and blue flashing lights and everything is out of order and jumbled and bounded by merciful unconsciousness.

You swim up through a deep pool of sleep and exhaustion and drug-induced haze, coming to on a bed in a bare hospital room. Dull grey light filters through the single window. It’s raining outside. You try to sit up but something spasms deep inside you and you know you’re badly broken.

She’s sitting at the end of the bed, her eyes bloodshot, but she sees you awake and moves to your side.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “For all of this.”

You try to say that you are too, for all of this, and for all the times that came before, but you can’t, not as broken as you are. You try to nod at her, to put all of your complex and lifetimes-long emotions into a single gesture, but you feel yourself slipping again, falling backwards until you feel like you’re looking at her down a long tunnel or through a pair of backwards binoculars. Distantly you can hear an alarm sounding and the room is suddenly full of nurses and doctors frantically working around the two of you. The room starts to dim around you and you distantly feel her press something hard and square into your hand, feel her place your finger over a button and press down, and

There’s only seven stories she says, sitting across from you at the little coffee shop on the corner while the rain falls outside the fogged-up windows. Only seven: Quest, Rebirth, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and some others she can’t remember. It doesn’t matter, the point is that there’s lots of stories, but really there’s only seven and everything is just a variation on one of them. She thinks there’s some kind of deep truth in that, something about the universal nature of shared experiences.

You’re honest and say you think it says something about the futility of trying something new and different, when everything turns out the same in the end.

She gives you a sad, infinitely tender look. You wonder briefly, reflexively, if that was the right thing to say, and reach automatically into your pocket for The Machine.

She reaches across the table and stops you, pulling your hand onto the table between you.

“Maybe,” she says. “Maybe not. But the story is worth something on its own, even if you think you know the ending. Isn’t it?”


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