The Time-Taster

Scott and Erin are moving. Their boxes are arranged on the floor, dishes and silverware swaddled in bubble-wrap, clothes folded in laundry baskets. Nothing is where it should be anymore.

In the kitchen, Erin runs her hand along the granite countertop, watches the dust moving in the sunlight. Scott is out picking up the U-haul. He will come back slowly: they have been fighting. It isn’t the way she wanted the day to go. Scott has been up since six, pulling things off shelves, sealing boxes with packing tape and writing their contents on the sides in sharpie, humming to himself while he disassembles their life. But she has floated through it like a bit of pollen, watching with a pang as each room is taken apart too quickly.

She can’t stop thinking about the day they first moved in.

They had had so little then; just an armchair and an old stained coffee table. Their wedding gifts hadn’t been unwrapped yet, and on the counter was a stack of IKEA gift cards they would be using to buy a couch, a table, a dresser, nightstands, a bookcase. They didn’t even have a bed frame yet.

That first night, they lit candles and put their mattress in the middle of the living room floor, where they sat and ate takeout Chinese, enclosed in a wall of boxes. Then Scott took out a sheet and draped it over the boxes on either side so that it hung over the mattress. They got underneath it, like they were two kids in a pillow fort. The candles made shadows on the other side, and Scott made shadow puppets while Erin giggled.

Now the walls are bare, the closets empty. Tomorrow it will no longer be theirs.

Erin’s hand comes to rest on a box at the end of the granite counter. The Sharpie writing on the side says: Erin’s spices, etc. Inside are her spice jars, stacked neatly on top of each other. They are very special spice jars; she has kept them safe for years now, ever since she was a little girl.

Laying next to them is an old wooden pepper mill. Its surface is worn, its crank rusty.

Erin takes an empty spice jar out of the box. Then she goes into the living room and opens Scott’s toolbox. It’s a new toolbox; she gave it to him just last Christmas. That was a month before Scott’s promotion, before they’d decided to move to London.

The move makes sense, of course. It’s the chance of a lifetime, this transfer, a chance to get out of America and see the world. They’ll visit Dublin and Paris and Madrid on weekends. And after all, what better place for Erin to finish her doctorate in Philosophy of Religion than so close to Westminster Abbey?

She can see the way his eyes shine when he says these things. It’s the same shine they have as when he looks up Tube stations on Google Maps and pores over books on British history.

She doesn’t know how to tell him that leaving this place is like having bits and pieces of her bones chipped away.

From the toolbox, Erin takes out a hammer and a chisel and kneels on the hardwood floor. She can feel the contours of the hard, old wood under her legs. Then with quick, precise movements, she carves a piece out of the floorboard. Splinters shoot in every direction.

When she is finished, she drops the piece of floorboard inside the spice jar and screws the lid on tight, tucking it away beside the pepper mill. Then she tapes the box shut.

They will lose their security deposit. But for Erin, the cost is worth it.

It is the day of their wedding. It rains hard, and the caterers are late. The guests can hardly hear the ceremony over the thunder and the downpour. The limo never arrives—someone gave the company the wrong date—and they have to leave the reception in Scott’s beat-up old Chevy.

She has never been happier.

At the hotel, they open a bottle of champagne. Scott spills it all over his shirtsleeves, and something about this final disaster makes them double over in laughter. While he is in the bathroom cleaning up, she watches a rerun of Friends. A smile tugs at her lips, and she reaches down and tears a piece of tulle from her wedding dress.

When they return from their honeymoon, she puts the tulle into a spice jar and tucks it away in the very back of the cupboard.

Right next to the scuffed-up pepper mill with a rusty metal crank.

Erin does not like London.

She tries. But she misses home.

No, that’s not it. She misses…something. Something she cannot place. It’s like the air is thinner and, try as she might, she cannot get a full, satisfying breath.

Scott’s company has set them up in a flat just a few blocks from the Earl’s Court Tube station. Supposedly Adele lives in this neighborhood, and Paul McCartney not far from it, but their flat is a modest one, a cramped one-bedroom in a historic building that badly needs a new coat of paint.

That first weekend, while they are still jet-lagging, they do the whirlwind tour. They see Big Ben and the London Eye and the House of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. They take the road along St. James park and watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. It is drizzling and they are shivering by the time the day is done. When they get back to Earl’s Court, they get coffee, and back in the flat Erin holds the cup in both hands, trying to warm her fingers while she listens to Scott snoring next to her and the rain, which has become a storm, pelting against the window.

That is the only time they go sightseeing together.

Scott starts his new job on Monday, and soon he is working late every night. They talk about what sights they will see next, what weekend trips they will take, but nothing materializes. Erin goes for runs in the park, does yoga. In the flat she sits on the floor, her papers spread out like an ocean before her, scribbling notes, reading Alvin Plantinga. She doesn’t go to see any of the sights herself. She wants to visit the National Gallery, but she can’t imagine going alone.

Soon, it becomes apparent that Scott is overwhelmed. He brings work home and sits in the flat on weekends, staring at his laptop. This is his first time managing a project launch, and she can tell that he is in over his head.

“I thought they had more time off in the UK,” she remarks one night when Scott comes home after eight.

He puts his briefcase on the counter. “It’s an American company, Erin,” is all he says.

One day for lunch she walks up to Ottolenghi and is delighted by the monstrous meringues in the window. She buys one on impulse. Walking back, she eats it and feels the happiest she has felt in weeks, until she passes by Kensington Palace. They had talked about coming up here together. But she doesn’t want to bother Scott, so she has waited, savoring her quiet dreams of walking by Kensington Palace and going to the National Gallery like the best pieces of Halloween candy, preserved in the bag until Christmas.

But there, standing at the gate to Kensington Palace with a half-eaten meringue, she suddenly realizes what she has been missing.

It’s not just that she misses home.

She misses him.

She misses the now-him, of course. But she misses the then-him more. Her missing their old apartment in Milwaukee is all tied up with her missing him, missing the him that was then. She no longer has the him that stubbed his toe over and over again on the IKEA coffee table. She no longer has the him that lay with his legs over the armrests of the old loveseat her parents had given them. She no longer has the him that used to peer out the window on the weekends, watching the families scurry to and from the farmers market with bags of vegetables.

She puts the remaining meringue back in the bag.

Back in the flat, her papers are all over the floor. She ignores them. Instead, she goes straight to the cupboard and reaches deep inside. From the recesses, she withdraws a box. Inside are her spice jars, waiting for her. She finds the one she wants and opens it.

Then she takes out the pepper mill.

She opens a spice jar and extracts the piece of floorboard from their old apartment, putting it into the pepper mill. Then she turns the crank. Wood grinds in the mill, flecks of sawdust coming down onto the countertop like seasoning. Carefully, she sweeps them from the counter into one hand.

Then she sticks out her tongue and licks the sawdust from her hand.

She stands for a long time in the kitchen, the pepper mill in her hand, tears in her eyes.

She is six years old. It’s a rainy spring day, and she and her brother Bobby are sleeping over at their grandma’s house. They spend all afternoon building a castle from the big bin of LEGOs grandma keeps in the closet just for her grandkids. Laddie, the Yorkshire terrier, sniffs at the growing spires and the dungeon and the turrets with suspicion. For dinner, they eat spaghetti and garlic bread, Grandma’s speciality. Afterwards they snuggle up under a blanket and watch The Aristocats. Bobby falls asleep sitting up, his head drooping onto his chest.

When the movie is over, Erin looks up.

“Grandma,” she says, “This is just the most perfect day.”

Her grandma smiles.

Then she does something very odd.

Taking a pair of scissors from the end table, she cuts a little corner off the blanket and hands it to Erin.

“You keep this safe, now. Put it somewhere where you won’t lose it.”

“But why, grandma?”

The old woman just shakes her head. “One day, you’ll see.”

It is winter, their third month in London, when Erin receives word that her grandmother has died.

She flies back to America alone.

It makes sense. Scott’s company is only days away from the big launch. He can’t just drop everything and leave, not after three months of hard work. Besides, they can’t swing the money for an extra ticket right now; Erin will also need to fly back next month to meet with her advisor. They have to make sacrifices in their budget somewhere.

Erin doesn’t argue. They’ve been arguing too often lately. It’s easier to say nothing, just like it has become easier to do everything by herself. She no longer expects that they will eat dinner together, no longer expects that they will go sightseeing on the weekends. She has begun to feel as though she weren’t even married.

One day while she is going for a run a good-looking British man in a neatly-tailored suit gives her a double-take and it makes her heart leap with a sudden, intense desire. The feeling terrifies her. She hides in the flat for the rest of the day, a blanket pulled tight around her shoulders, filled with longing and disgust. She doesn’t want that stranger in the suit: she wants Scott.

But then-Scott and now-Scott are nowhere to be found.

The funeral is short but beautiful. Erin’s mother and uncles tell stories: about the time grandma chased a salesman off with a frying pan, about the time she backed the car through the garage door. Grandma’s old pastor delivers the sermon, and when he is finished everyone is crying. Afterwards, at the burial site, the family huddles together as the casket is swallowed by the wintery earth.

The next day, Erin goes with her whole family to her grandma’s house. When they pull up, there is a red “For Sale” sign out front. Inside, her uncles have already gotten a head start: there are boxes everywhere, picture frames in bubble wrap, furniture out of place. It reminds Erin all too vividly of three months earlier, the dust swirling in her Milwaukee apartment. She feels dizzy. She tells her mother she needs a minute.

Her mother pats her arm. “Of course, dear.”

Erin sits on the sofa for a while. Then, like she is walking in a trance, she wanders through the house. Her uncles are struggling with an armoire. Her brother Bobby has found the bin of LEGOs and is claiming them for himself. On the table, her mother has collected all of grandma’s extraneous knickknacks: miscellaneous china, an old clock, little statues of birds.

Her phone buzzes.

It’s Scott, FaceTiming her.

She hesitates, then answers.

A frozen, pixelated version of her husband’s face flickers onto the little screen from four thousand miles away. It’s his eyes, his curly hair, his stubbly chin. Yet the face seems unreal.

“Hey,” comes his voice. “How was the funeral?”

She stares at him, at this image that is him-but-not-him. This scrap of him, this him-from-a-distance.

She says: “You should’ve been here, Scott.”

A tired sigh, a tinny burst of static. “Erin…you know how important this launch is…”

“I don’t care. You should’ve been here.”

The phone is silent. She knows what he is thinking: that she doesn’t understand the pressure he is under, that she has no sympathy for him. That she doesn’t appreciate how he works to pay the bills so that she can pursue her academic dreams. And perhaps she doesn’t, not fully. But she wants to, and that is the difference.

“Do you remember that first night in our place in Milwaukee?” she finds herself asking. “When we ate Chinese and slept in the blanket fort?”

You slept. I was sore the whole next day.”

She isn’t sure why, but this makes a lump comes to her throat. She runs her fingers over the little bird statues, feeling the grooves in the carved wood, the flakes of paint chipping off.

“I’ll see you at the flat tomorrow,” she says. “My flight gets in at 4:00.”

“Okay.” She can’t interpret the tone in his voice. Is he relieved that she is ending the call so that he can get back to work? “Hey, Erin?”

But she hangs up before he can finish.

When her mother isn’t looking, she pockets one of the bird statues.

A bit of wood, a bit of lace. A compass and an empty seashell. Crumpled pages from a diary, tinsel from a Christmas tree.

Sitting in spice jars, in the cupboard behind the peanut butter.

She doesn’t sleep the whole flight back.

When she finally arrives at the flat, exhausted and jet-lagging, she finds it dark. This is expected—the big launch is tomorrow—but for some reason it makes her heart sink. She envisions Scott’s drawers empty, his clothes packed, a note on the table saying that he is staying in a hotel.

She switches on a lamp.

Scott is sitting on the couch with two cartons of Chinese takeout.

On the floor is a mattress. And, hanging over it like a canopy, propped up by two chairs, is a sheet.

She stares at him.

She says: “Isn’t your launch tomorrow?”

His smile is weak and tentative. He looks like he did the day he first asked her out in college, when he had come over to the table where she sat with her friends in the dining hall, smiling that half-smile.

“Maybe it’s a stupid idea,” he says. “I know you just got off a seven-hour flight. I know that you’re probably wiped. But I’ve been doing a lot of thinking while you’ve been gone and I just…”

His eyes are bright. “I just miss you is all.”

She throws her arms around him and sobs.

They are moving again. Going back to America. Scott and Erin have spent two years in London.

They have visited Dublin and Paris and Madrid. They have gone to the National Gallery and Kensington Palace. They have gone for walks together on Saturdays, and read novels together in the park on Sundays, and cooked together and laughed together and cried together.

The launch of Scott’s first big project was a disaster, yet it doesn’t seem to bother him. He has stopped working so late and no longer stares at his laptop screen every weekend. When they go out, they hold hands.

It is as if he has been returned to her. Now-Scott and Then-Scott and Later-Scott all in one. They have found each other again.

On the week they are to move, they pack up the flat. Pictures come down from the walls, cooking utensils are scooped out of the drawers. Scott carefully rolls up the print of Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire he had purchased for her from the National Gallery. Books go in boxes, clothes in suitcases.

When everything is finished, Scott takes the boxes out to have them shipped. While he is gone, Erin stands in the quiet and looks around at the flat. Their flat. The flat she had so hated, that had been so empty of meaning, so empty of Scott.

But now, everywhere she looks, she sees him.

And not only him: them, together. They have made this place their own; it is infused with them. She can see them sitting on the couch, her head on his shoulder, watching Netflix. She can see them in the kitchen, her sipping coffee while he mixes pancake batter. She can see them in the bathroom, struggling together to fix the leaking faucet.

Here, Milwaukee-Scott and Milwaukee-Erin have become London-Scott and London-Erin. When they go back they will become new versions of themselves, onions being peeled in reverse, adding on layers.

This time is not like the last time: this time they are not divided. Yet she feels the sadness all the same, a kind of sadness steeped in happiness, of leaving a place and the versions of themselves forever tied to it.

She reaches up and tears a strip of wallpaper from the wall.

She is ten years old. It is her birthday. Her mother throws a big party in the park with her relatives and her friends from school, and together they play games and eat hot dogs and cake. She gets a bunch of Nancy Drew books and a new diary with a lock and Encyclopedia Britannica software for the computer.

When the party is finished, while her parents are cleaning up, her grandma sits down next to her at the picnic table and hands her a present.

“I’ve been saving this for you,” says her grandma, “Since the day you were born.”

Erin tears off the wrapping paper and opens the lid. Inside is a strange device, a wooden cylinder with a metal handle. It looks like something her mom would use in the kitchen.

“What is it?” she asks.

“It’s a pepper mill. But it is a very special pepper mill.”

Grandma reaches down and takes the device out of the box, holding it up. The setting sun refracts off the crank, making Erin squint.

“Memories fade, Erin. But there are some memories, some people and some places, that have a stronger flavor than the rest. They are also the ones we wind up missing the most. These people and these places cannot be contained by time: they leak into the past, present, and future like droplets of ink in a cup of water. We may be stuck going forward, but they go in all directions, coloring everything. A moment of laughter, the smell from an oven, the sunlight through curtains: they happen and are gone, but they travel with us, and the taste of them is like wine: it ages, grows richer, stronger.”

She hands the pepper mill back to Erin, a little light in her eyes and a smile on her lips.

“This will help you taste them.”

Story by Matt Mills

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