You’re sitting on the back deck watching a small, brown rabbit nibble grass. He’s nervous, shooting you worried looks. But he also stays, keeps eating. It seems like a sign of something good, or at least not a sign of anything bad and sometimes it’s enough to just be still and watch a rabbit be a rabbit.
And then the weird next-door neighbor, the one who lurks behind his expensive shrubbery, pops out from the mock orange. The rabbit darts away and even though you shouldn’t take it personally, you feel your heart sink.
“Come see what I have in the garage,” the neighbor says. You’re going to decline because, seriously? Who would even think that’s okay to say? But then he adds that it’s a time machine.
Okay. All the rich people who move to the mountains from Atlanta to retire can afford central air and reclaimed wood kitchens. (You have already pointed out that your kitchen is also wood. The original. And more than once you’ve reclaimed it from the rats, so. Maybe that will be the big trend in ten more years — rat-salvaged wood kitchens.) But this guy. This guy is so particularly rich that instead of installing a cedar-lined sauna or a recording studio, he’s gone and bought a time machine.
Where does one even purchase such a thing? Obviously this a world in which everything exists and if it doesn’t, it can be 3-D printed. But rich people do have more access than poor people. You’re not poor, but you’re not living in a 600-square-foot cottage because you’re jumping on board the tiny house movement, either. And rat-wood. So of course you put on your flip-flops and cross your yard to his yard. It’s a time machine, for crying out loud.
You do have a moment of prickling fear at the entrance to the neighbor’s garage. It’s suddenly an obvious ploy to get you inside — but to do what? Chop you up and store you in his chest freezer? No one does that anyone. For one, no one could post about it on any social media platform (unless there’s a special secret social media platform only accessed by ax murderers) … and then you’re inside and yes. There actually is a large silver orb, covered in traffic sign-sized sheets of tin and surrounded by blinking red and green lights. There’s a haze of smoke, which could just be dry ice, but it certainly sets the mood.
“You can use it if you want,” the neighbor says. “Just once, though. It has some kinks so for now you can only take one trip, and you have to do whatever you’re going to do in fifteen minutes. That’s all you get before it zaps you back.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve never thought about it — what you’d do if you could go back to the past in a time machine.”
“Well, of course. Everyone has.”
“So go,” he says. “I’ve already pre-paid for the month, and I wasn’t going to use my one trip for today.”
You just kind of gape at him.
He shrugs. “I figured everyone already knew where they’d go. You know, if they had the chance.”
“No, I mean, yes. Of course,” you say.
“I’ll give you a minute to think about it,” he says. He shows you what button to push. He reminds you that you’ve only got fifteen minutes. “So keep it light — first kiss, wedding dance — no re-routing the Titanic or anything.”
You settle into one of the redwood chairs the neighbor has in his garage. You look around at his stuff— tools lined up neatly on a tool bench, expensive bicycles that look like they’ve never been ridden, skis even though it rarely snows here enough to go skiing. You think about your first kiss and how dumb and awkward it was. What was the guy’s name? Jason something. Or Mike something. Or Chad. It was at summer camp and every guy at summer camp was called Chad. Nope. Not reliving that.
You think about the boy you wish you’d kissed. Micah, the skateboarder with the dark fin of hair obscuring one eye. How you’d left notes in his locker and sometimes he’d written back, or called you late at night. You had your own phone in your room. It was purple. Micah’s voice sounded like smoke and heartache, and you thought he was romantic. What you’d say, if you could go back, is, “Don’t hang yourself from the rafters of your neighbor’s garage.” But if you said it to him when he was sixteen, he’d just laugh at you. You’d have to show up when he was twenty and drunk and depressed, and seriously thinking about it. Only you don’t know exactly when it happened because you’d moved on by then, gone to college and forgotten about him.
You twist your hands, unable to settle on a date. Maybe college, then. What if you could change your major from Renaissance Literature to something that would actually earn you a living? But it’s your paltry paycheck you regret, not your life of books. You could maybe go back in time and change the minds of the people who decided professional athletes should make zillions and poetry scholars should make slightly less than fast-food workers, but really, that was like stopping the Titanic from sinking.
The past hurts, when you think of it. It’s full of dark corners and pits of quicksand that you are mostly thankful to have narrowly averted. You think, why would anyone go back? None of us might be so lucky the second time around.
Maybe you’d be luckier in your doomed marriage if … what? If you never said yes in the first place. Or if the last time your husband stood by the door with a suitcase you said stop, or wait, or please. But love, in retrospect, seems like such a rare magic. Fireflies, the migratory patterns of monarchs, the bright gasp of a falling asteroid. Who are you to climb into it with a wrench and screwdriver, trying to recalibrate its mechanism? And maybe your husband was right to leave. You are a Renaissance Literature scholar. You write poems about the bright gasp of falling asteroids. Your grasp of practical matters like marriage and time travel is tenuous at best.
Hell, you’ve been sitting in your neighbor’s garage for the past fifteen minutes incapable of recalling a single moment of your life you’d do over, or do differently. You’re content to watch the movie of it roll across your mind’s eye. The best moments are the simplest. The time you swam in the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the time you witnessed the the wind moving through a cornfield, the time you fell asleep to the song of the crickets through your open windows.
You finally stand and enter the time machine and press the button. There’s a clatter of engines and the stomach-lurching drop of a roller-coaster. When you open the door, a cloud of smoke clears. You’re on your own back deck and, nearby, there’s a small, brown rabbit nibbling grass. He’s nervous, but he also stays. It seems like a sign of something good, just to be still and watch a rabbit be a rabbit.