Joyland

New York |

We Are the Time Travelers

by Nancy Hightower

edited by Emily Schultz

L isten: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941…Billy is spastic in time…he is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what parts of his life he is going to have to act in the next.

I first read Slaughterhouse-Five the way I do most books; I devoured the first ten to fifteen pages, skipped to the end, and then worked my way towards the middle of the book from both directions. That’s how I read every book from childhood into adulthood. I even studied for my PhD exam in literature and reviewed books for the Washington Post using this method. I read much like Billy Pilgrim experiences time—in starts and stops and never in sequence, everything out of order.

“Why would you do such a thing?” A writer friend of mine once asked me at a group dinner after I mentioned my style of reading and my need to know how a story ends. “The end is meant to be experienced as the end—it’s a journey,” he explained. Others turned to hear my reply, but I couldn’t find anything satisfying to say. I knew my reading process wasn’t more efficient; if anything, it took me longer to read books and stories, to piece together exactly what happened. I didn’t understand then, the connection between how I read books and how I often processed time, in stops and starts, my desire to know the end fueled by fear and a desperate need for safety, for knowing what would happen.

I did not expect to discover the answer while reading the stories about Harvey Weinstein and other predators. I didn’t expect to remember Billy Pilgrim and finally realize why I understood him on an intuitive level that unnerved me. We are both unstuck in time, traveling the random bricolage of past, future, and present moments. Transgressions and violations of my boundaries as a child forever weakened my tie to the present. For instance, I might be on a date with someone whose body frame reminds me of my grandfather’s. All of a sudden, I’m five years old again, back in the peach room with my grandfather’s head between my legs. Or my date might offer to buy me a gift when I find myself in Target at nine years old, when a well-dressed man with a soothing voice put his hand on my shoulder as his body inched closer to mine. He promised to buy me a toy. Will my date try to coax me with something sweet like my grandfather or stalk me and make me promises like the stranger in the toy aisle?

When my mother found out about these incidents, she told me not to talk to strangers and not to play doctor or post office with other children, as if such rules would keep me safe. Society gave me more rules as I entered my twenties: don’t get drunk at a party, don’t walk alone to your car at night, don’t be too flirtatious on a first date. Obey the rules, and predators won’t be able to find you. But according the Tralfamadorians, the aliens who abducted Billy Pilgrim, there are no rules. To askwhy me “is a very Earthling question to ask…Why you. Why us for that matter?” they tell Billy. “Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?…Well, here we are Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

According to our patriarchal culture, I am trapped in the amber of being a woman. I am to expect violation from men, and yet, I am bombarded with rules about how to prevent it, and when it happens, society will demand to know why I couldn’t stop it. Time travel was the only way I could survive this destructive logic as I floated between the living room where Lawrence Welk music played and the bathroom where my grandfather stood, a great big blue towel being pulled off his waist. I learned how not to be fully present, how to let a portion of myself escape. Survivors like me send that part out to the ceiling, the sky, another room or an imaginary land to ensure we have something left when it is all over.

Sometimes, though, we don’t know we’ve been trapped until after the fact. We forget that no matter how many rules we follow, a predator finds a loophole. I was in the fifth grade, asking my teacher Mr. Smith what assignments I missed the day I was home sick. Mr. Smith sported a square jaw framed by square-rimmed glasses and a short haircut. He was exactly how you would picture a fifth-grade teacher or a serial killer. Leaning back in his chair, hands folded in deep thought he told me that everyone wrote a paper about self-identity. “That can mean anything, of course, like changes in your personality,” he said softly. “But some really good papers talked about bodily changes. Some were very detailed and described their crotch too.” He cleared his throat and covered his mouth as he said crotch, as if the word were an accident, as if it didn’t really come from him. I went home and wrote about my body in the kind of critical, detached detail that will one day land me in an English PhD program, but functioned as a prose driven peep show for my teacher. I described my recently budding breasts and the tufts of hair cropping up in new places. I received an A on the paper, but my joy was short lived when I showed it to my mother, her face turning to stone as she read. I realized I had done something wrong again and mentally flip through all the rules she has taught me. Which one did I accidentally break?

“Your teacher is a pervert,” she said in a tone so low it was almost a growl. I couldn’t tell who she was angrier at—the teacher for being a pervert or me for letting myself be manipulated again after what my grandfather did. After the man in the store. “Never stay after class or talk to him alone. Don’t ever talk to anyone about your body, either.”

I wanted to argue that Mr. Smith got inside my head, not my body, but neither seemed to matter since I wasn’t taken out of his class nor was Mr. Smith disciplined because “nice men” can bend logic to erase boundaries they believe shouldn’t exist. In a culture where predators can develop and wield such superpowers, what defense does a woman have?

*

When I turned twelve, my mother gave up blaming society for its rape culture and focused solely on my culpability. One night she laid out slips of paper on the dining room table and instructed me to list the sexual demons inside of me. She obviously assumed I had many. I’m a slut, a cunt, a witch and bitch, I wrote, channeling Dr. Seuss. Already, I was learning the names society would call me when I made the wrong move. If you're a woman, you’ve heard these names shouted at you by the guy on the corner, the one you try to avoid by taking a different route to and from work. Societal logic dictates no harm, no foul: a catcall never hurt anyone. The lists my mother made me write were just words on paper, but they slowly etched their way into my identity until I didn’t even know who I was anymore.

By the time many of us are adults, we realize that neither logic nor the rules will save us because the unthinkable can happen anywhere: in an alley, on a bus, or in a classroom filled with small desks all in a row. Those memories then become stuck in amber, places that we involuntarily revisit just as Billy Pilgrim could be watching a barbershop quartet and suddenly be back in a meat locker with four German guards, their expressions one of open-mouthed horror while they hear the carpet bombing of Dresden above. Traumas also shoot us too far into the future, into many possible futures. I skip back to past mistakes and fast forward to the situation I might find myself in. I navigate the hypothetical as if it were fact, thereby denying myself any real time in the present. I am rarely present. Almost never, because when I actually let myself be fully in the moment and vulnerable, that is when the unthinkable happens.

One night I was standing next to a friend at a writing conference when he lightly patted my back. “You’re looking good,” he said, then slid his hand down all the way to my ass. “Really good.”

I was thirty-nine. He was married, with kids, and a baby on the way. As I moved out of his reach and asked about his wife, I tried to figure out where my calculations went wrong. How did I not know he would try this? Other people would say that a pat on the ass is nothing and argue that if we get upset over every little infraction, it is the end of all flirting and procreation. The Tralfamadorians would understand this point of view, I’m sure. Bugs trapped in amber don’t have much free will. I went back to my room and wondered what I had done to encourage him or suggest he could hit on me. I revisit this memory when another friend starts commenting on my appearance, hands accidentally grazing my body once he’s had too much to drink. I make a mental note to keep one or two people between us whenever we’re both at a party. It is a chess match. He takes a step. I take a counter step. Of course, it might have been a mistake. It might never happen again. When I look into the future, though, I can’t be sure.

So often we are chided for not knowing how to save ourselves. I stay late at social functions because I make some of my best connections for future projects after the crowds have died away. I usually leave after midnight, sometimes even as late as two or three in the morning, and must figure out how to get home when the train station is a fifteen-minute walk away. There is a long stretch with little lighting and very few people out. I hurry along to wait at a mostly empty train station. It is just me and a few men. It seems to be always just a few men. I turn down my music. I look for exits. I think about what might happen. One night I got on my train and arrived in Chelsea, where the streets are well lighted except for my block, which is more residential. I wasn’t worried, though, since it was a thirty-second walk down the street to my complex. Then I heard footsteps behind me. I didn’t turn around but sped up until I reached the gate and swiped my card. For a split second, I thought I made it safely inside. For a split second, I relaxed until I realized the person behind me had sped up and followed me inside the gate. I turned around to see a tall, thin man.

“Oh, you live here too?” I asked. I wasn’t scared yet, but I looked around to see which windows were lit, where to direct my voice should I need to cry for help.

“Yeah, I’m staying with a friend in one of the apartments,” he said casually. “I’m not sure how to use the card yet.”

“I can show you.” I wanted proof he belonged there. I wanted to believe I didn’t just let a stranger into the complex, a stranger who might follow me to my building.

“That’s all right, I’ll learn it some other time.” He had a nice smile, an easy demeanor. He was not threatening. The ones who got me when I was young were never threatening. That is how they got me.

“Then let’s get you checked in to the front desk, so I don’t get in trouble for letting you in,” I said, even though I knew no one was at the desk. I didn’t know what else to do other than politely threaten him with the possibility of meeting other people, no matter how imaginary.

“You know, I don’t want to get you in trouble. I’ll come back later,” he replied, his grin even wider, his hands trying to wave away my worry as he turned and went back out through the entrance. Once I heard the clang of the gate, I breathed easier for a moment. The man kept his promise and came back—not to find me, but because he was looking for a warm place to sleep. I was not the primary target for once, but if I was, would I have been exonerated of wrongdoing, given the litany of questions every woman faces when the hypothetical morphs into the concrete? Why did you put yourself at risk? Why didn’t you take a cab home? Why didn’t you start yelling? These are the details demanded of every sexual assault survivor. What was the time? We forget the woman of the present moment—how she might be feeling, bleeding, hurting, and wounded—and ask if it was only ten thirty or sometime between two and four a.m. when monsters roam the streets? What part of town was she in and how many drinks did she consume? I replay her story. I replay my story. How did I not expect the man would follow me in, when so many others have simply walked on? These are questions one poses to time travelers. How could you not know this would happen? At the next party I attend, I count my drinks and watch the clock. I sometimes take a cab home even though I can’t afford it. I always look for witnesses now.

*

Perhaps lack of witnesses is why I have only been alone in one man’s apartment since moving to New York City four years ago. I was invited over to his place in Harlem for drinks and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. What better movie to watch when you travel so easily between reality, fiction, and madness? Yet once I stepped over the threshold and into this closed off space, away from any other eyes and ears, I felt the invisible oppression of what was expected of me: a few drinks, more kissing than what we had done at the coffee shop, more than what had transpired at the bar with his hand slowly moving up my thigh. I didn't know if I wanted it to go further. I flip trip into the future. What were you thinking? friends would ask, if anything went wrong. A movie and drinks in a man’s home means only one thing. The room swirled around me as I was thrown back into the peach room where I held the stiff penis of an old man in my five-year-old hands. One blink and I was sitting on a couch across from my therapist, all blond and perky as she reminded me that I set the boundaries. “You can always say no,” she added, in that optimistic, cheerful tone Nancy Reagan used when talking about drugs.

But how often does no statistically work, especially after you have said yes to going to his place? Yes to his mouth on your breast? Yes to his lifting up your skirt and pulling down your tights. I panicked and cited work stress. “My editor called today and gave me a last minute book to review. I don’t even own a copy of it yet.” I figured a work emergency was stronger than a no created only out of intuition and haphazard time travel. Stick to the concrete when you can.

“Then you really need to relax all the more,” he said, and handed me a drink. It was a counter move. We were in a chess game that I hoped wouldn’t turn violent. I sipped my whiskey and coke and wondered how long I had to stay before I could leave without causing a scene. After all, I hadn’t canceled on him earlier in the day, when it would have made sense, but now that I was here I was forced to jump into several futures. It was another kind of time travel: imaging how I would have to say no to sex, no to oral sex. No to whatever long and original mental checklist he had constructed around this night.

He noticed that I was very tense and began to give me a neck rub. I talked about the possibility of screwing myself over with the editor if I didn’t get the book tonight before the stores closed. The newspaper I reviewed for was a big deal. I couldn’t be late for a deadline. He said there was plenty of time, and recited Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven because he was an actor and somehow thought hearing a macabre poem might relax me, or at least make me see that my troubles were not as bad as a man plagued by a demonic raven? There were tears in his eyes when he got to the part about dead Lenore. I began to wonder if I would die there when he took Harry Potter’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard off the bookshelf and read about the Deathly Hallows (his kids loved this book, he explained. That didn't explain why I, at 45, after expressing a desire to leave, should want to hear a tale about three wizards who couldn’t outsmart death). Was he trying to wear down my resistance through storytelling? Were most men trained to create narratives that would somehow circumvent a woman’s no, reroute it to mean yes after a certain amount of cultural deconstruction?

When he was done reading, I decided it was time for extreme measures. I lied.

“Look, I’m a really slow reader, so I have to get this book tonight.” I should have told him about my fear of endings. I should have told him that I still didn’t know how to give him the benefit of the doubt that we could just watch a movie and that he wouldn’t pressure me for anything more, that I had never experienced love because I had never been present long enough to receive it. But I didn’t understand then that I was a time traveler, and had already been to so many memories and rooms that night there was no place left for me to be other than gone. That the evening had become bizarrely tinged with the gothic certainly didn’t help.

He nodded to show empathy. “I’ll go with you. I know where the closest Barnes & Noble is.” I acquiesced to this announcement since at least I get to leave. I even rested my head on his shoulder as we rode the bus to the bookstore. It was easier to be physical with him in public, where others would make sure my date would behave. I count safety in degrees the way I divide an hour into minutes. My date never called or texted me again. He probably remembers it as a failed movie night. I remember it as escaping the different futures I saw, a few which had no escape.

That was 2015, before #metoo, before our stories formed a web of connection on the internet, before I realized I was meeting other time travelers. We are connecting stories from our past to our present, trying to secure a better future that is constantly being reworked and reimagined by both the patriarchy and those who wish to destroy it. But there is something so much more vital and human in our struggle. You are so brave for writing these essays, some of my friends have said. They don’t understand I am neither brave nor fearless. I am merely trying to get back to a place called now.