I am now sitting in a small beige room. The room's only contents are me and this gray chair. In front of me is the only door to the room and a numeric keypad mounted on the wall beside it. There are no windows and no vents. The fluorescent overhead lighting fixture is mounted to a solid white ceiling. The flooring looks some kind of institutional linoleum. There are no mirrors or clocks or artwork, no magazines, pamphlets, instructions, or signs.
I don't know how I got here.
The last thing I remember is lying in a hospital bed, with the faint din and chatter of hospital staff and passers-by in the background and the louder blips and whirs of machines seemingly attached to my person.
I am not in a hospital gown now, just my regular clothes. I think these are my regular clothes. I've worn this sweater before but these shoes look different. Did I buy these shoes? They seem like shoes I would buy. I like them, anyway. This is the watch my mother gave me three birthdays ago. Is this the time? Hmm. The hands aren't moving. Either this watch has died or I have!
What is this room? Is this a waiting room? Am I waiting to be discharged from the hospital? Those must've been some really good drugs for me to not remember getting up and dressed and coming into this room. How long have I been here? It feels like I have been waiting a while and no one has come in here to get me. Without a clock, I don't know if I've sitting here ten minutes or ten days. It can't be ten days because I've not gotten hungry or sleepy or the need for a toilet yet. When was the last time I ate something? I don't recall.
It feels very small for a waiting room, more like an elevator or a fully enclosed cubicle. Maybe it's an isolation booth. Why do I need to be isolated from everything except this chair?
Maybe I should just try the door. Why didn't I do that in the first place? Politeness, I guess? I don't want to push my way through if they sat me in here for a particular reason and I was still too drugged up to understand. I didn't understand most of why I was in the hospital anyway. However, this wait seems excessive, even by excessive medical wait time standards. Boy, I wish I could remember something. What if I was abducted from the hospital and brought here and certain danger lurks beyond that door? What lurks here but certain boredom?
I go to the door. It's locked. Is it locked or stuck? Locked. What if I turn the knob the other—nope. Maybe I'm too weak to open the door. I'll knock.
I'll knock louder.
What are the odds that I can guess the code for this keypad? Is it a three-digit code? Five? Four? I punch in all the obvious numerical password variations. Nope. I punch in every PIN code I've ever had. The handle doesn't budge.
Maybe this is one of those psych evaluation tests to see how long a person is willing to wait in a room or to what lengths someone will go to escape the room. I don't see any potential escape routes. If the ceiling were panelled, I could try to hoist myself up and see if that led anywhere. Or if there were air ducts, I could wriggle through those tunnels to...wherever air ducts go. Whoever designed this room certainly outsmarted me.
I try my birthdate on the keypad. The door unlocks. Finally.
On the other side of the door is a hospital room, different from the one I was in before. It smells of cigarettes and ammonia. My mother is asleep in the bed, with a newborn in a hospital crib next to her. She looks so young, so peaceful—my mother, that is. Babies naturally look young, except when they look like wrinkly old men. I move to take a closer look at this tiny, wrinkly old newborn—is this me? I examine the name band around the baby's ankle. She has my name. She looks like my baby pictures.
I stand here for—oh, look, a clock—twenty minutes attempting to process this experience. Maybe the drugs haven't worn off yet.
I don't want to disturb my mother, on any of the levels on which this would be disturbing. Maybe someone beyond her door has answers for me. I open the door to leave her room, to explore the rest of the hospital, but when I walk through the doorway, I am returned to my isolation booth.
Do I try to go back? Can I try punching in a different date? Do I know any other dates? My mother's birthday! Doesn't work. Dad's birthday! Nope. Lincoln's assassination! No...but I don't even know that I know when that was. Try some far off date in the future. No go. How about...my sixth birthday? Bingo!
I leave the beige room and enter my family's mauve and powder blue living room, where we're opening my birthday presents. No one acknowledges my entrance or notices as I walk around and sit on the piano bench next to Uncle Charles. I must be invisible. Time travel and invisibility? Why? Maybe this is a dream, one of those semi-conscious dreams where I can control some events but then the staircase turns into a dragon or something. Hey, this is the year I got my Dolly Pops and my Care Bear lunchbox! I wonder what my old bedroom would look like to me now. Still unobserved by the party revellers, I walk down the hallway to my childhood bedroom, turn the doorknob and...back to the tiny beige room.
So, I can travel through time, but only within my own timeline, where I am then invisible. If I try to pass through any door, it puts me back in this room. Isn't it time for some administrative sprite or anthropomorphic woodland creature to give me instructions or hints or a ridiculous riddle to solve to guide me to my purpose for being here?
I should try to find out how I got here. I punch in the day I went into the hospital. No good. Drat. I try every day before that to no avail until, at last, a day three months earlier. The door unlocks but I don't leave. What am I trying to do? If I'm not able return to the last day that I think I can recall, am I likely to find answers from any other time? If I am invisible, how do I try to catch my own attention, to warn myself about...whatever this is? "Oh, hey, Self. I'm us from the Future and something happens where I can come and speak to you—what? Are we dead? Is this a joke? Is it a dream? I don't know either! Anyway, stay vigilant and take extra care around March 2015."
Even if I could proffer a warning, could I do anything to change the course of events that led me here? What needs to be changed and how do I do that? Or, do I wind up here anyway? Is the thing that put me here a fixed point in my life, a kind of heat-seeking missile that will track me down and impact me, regardless of my lifestyle, dietary, or religious augmentations? The rules of time travel have never made sense to me.
Seriously, a guidebook or knowledgable elf would be very helpful right now. Where is that quirky guardian spirit whose ethereal career advancement depends on my escaping this magical isolation time travel booth?
If no one will answer my questions, I have to seek out the answers myself. Can I communicate with anyone? Can I touch things? Can I bring back mementos and liven up my little room here? Figuring that I have infinite time, and with no clues to the consequences of my actions, I start a series of experiments.
I go to my early childhood, back to my first bedroom. While my younger self sleeps, I search for clues and test the scope of my abilities with little impact on my timeline. I learn how to move things. While my toddler self plays with our stuffed animals, I confirm that I have no physical presence. No one can hear me speak. Or scream. I go to my friend Lindsay’s thirteenth birthday party, where we played with her Ouija board in an effort to ask ghosts whether certain boys liked us. No matter how much ghostly ruckus I make, I cannot rouse myself or the other teenage girls. Lindsay stubbornly rejects my Ouija message that Kevin likes Kendra. If I can't prevent her heartbreak when Kevin takes Kendra to the Homecoming Dance three weeks later, what are the odds that I can keep myself from becoming an invisible time-traveling spirit?
I return to my old bedroom to practice moving furniture when I notice my father's copy of his Morse Code handbook on my nightstand. When I was 10 or 11, he tried teaching me the Morse alphabet and key phrases so that we could communicate with each other or I could signal for help. I wish he were here with me now. Does he have his own little beige room?
I try to shadow myself for long intervals. Sometimes we go for days at a time and I can travel with myself across the house, across town, across state lines. Eventually we walk through a door and I wind up back in my tiny empty room.
Maybe these are my memories. Maybe I'm not really travelling through time but just through my own memories. But what am I supposed to do? Do I revisit my own highlights? Do I relive the bad moments to discover what I thought were the worst experiences weren't so bad after all? I've been so preoccupied with looking for answers, I haven't really paid attention to the actual events I was popping into. What if I'm meant only to observe, not interfere with events? Maybe I'm supposed to have a grand epiphany that will upgrade my dreary accommodations.
If these are my memories, maybe I'm not travelling at all. Maybe I'm in a coma and I lost those last three months of memories to trauma. What else have I lost? How long have I been here? Is it really so bad here? I am not in pain, I'm not cold or hungry or constipated or sleepy, I'm not even lonely. Do I really want to find a way back to paying bills and long lines at the grocery store and heartbreak and backaches and adult acne? Don't I want to go back to chocolate chip cookies and bacon and hot showers and cold beer and the smell of fresh laundry and stale farts and laughter and feeling?
This is a pointless game. What if there is no back?
My kingdom for a sensible cricket in spats and a top hat to sing a song right about now.
I go to the door and punch in my father's dying day. I know that I'll be sitting with him in hospice, holding his hand and telling him the banalities of that day's errands. I'm not sure why I chose this day, except one more desperate attempt to answer my questions before I resign myself to my little gray chair in my little beige room to sit, possibly forever. I watch my Earthly self tap Morse Code into our father's hand. I recognize it as a secret phrase he taught me. He tries to return the sentiment, but his hands are weak and slow.
Eventually my father drifts into a deeper sleep and my Earthly self nods off. This is the time to take a risk. I grab a spoon from his dinner tray and tap our secret phrase onto the wall. I hear it repeated over on the bedside table. It doesn't seem to come from anyone visibly present in the room. I try it again. It repeats. This is the most excitement I've experienced in, well, who knows.
I tap frantically on the wall.
I have so many questions! Is this real? Where are you? I can't see you either!
I want to hug him! I want to speak! I tap and tell him all about my room and the time travel and the...what does this mean...if we're both here?
He taps back about his own room, which is the same as mine. He says he started by visiting all of his happiest memories—me, my mother, our holidays, Sunday dinners with his parents—and then looked for ways to move on. He tells me that he still hasn't figured anything out and that this is the first time he's had communication with anyone. He says he's been losing memories. This is only day he can access now.
We chat as best we can, for as long as we can. I tell him everything that's happened to me in the five years, minus three months, since he died. Soon, his body flatlines and the nurses flood in and in all the commotion, we lose each other again.
I return to my room. My cubicle. My isolation chamber.
I think about my happiest memories and which ones I'll revisit. The happiest moments never seem to be the big events, like graduations and weddings and birthdays. It's going for ice cream and stopping to watch a neighbourhood baseball game. It's a weekend nap with the cats snuggled up beside me. It's going for a walk at sunset on a cool July evening and your favourite song comes on the radio. But these are not moments you can type into a keypad and visit whenever you want. I don't remember the date.
In a fit of nostalgia, a craving for the hard rock of my youth to ease my current frustrations, I punch in a random day from my moody teenage days. The door doesn't budge. I try it again. I try the day before, the day after. Have the rules changed? I punch in my college graduation. No good. Have I already forgotten the date I graduated? I try my 21st birthday. The door still won't open. Am I already losing my memories? It doesn't feel like I've been here long enough.
I sit and I wait. It's really not so bad in here.
Suddenly, a buzzer. The door opens and a bright light floods in.
A couple discusses a development that could impact their relationship.
Girlfriend - early 30s, wearing bulky cardigan with pockets and big glasses on chain around neck, wardrobe and mannerisms that would befit an elderly man
Boyfriend - early 30s, youthful casual dress, contrast from girlfriend's attire
Boyfriend enters and joins his Girlfriend at cafe table.
Sorry I'm late, I just got your text. What's wrong?
Oh, nothing's wrong.
But you have something important to tell me?
(pauses, unsure how to break the news, then announces excitedly)
I'm a Grandpa!
I'm a Grandpa.
I don't know what that means. Do you have some family that I don't know about?
Well, uh, did you adopt someone who has kids?
Of course not.
I guess I don't understand.
As you know, I recently had a big birthday and that got me asking myself a lot of questions. Who am I? What am I doing with my life? What do I see for my future? I have done a lot of soul searching, trying to determine my place in the world, in society, and I've finally found it.
(still trying to process the concept)
So...you want to be a grandfather? How's that gonna work? How will that affect us? Are you transitioning? Oh god! I don't know what to say without sounding insensitive. What can I say? Am I allowed to ask questions? Now I have so many questions!
Calm down. Obviously I'm not a literal grandfather. I'm simply self-identifying as a Grandpa because that's the lifestyle that most comfortably defines me.
Why not be a grandmother? You could take up knitting? Or baking!
Ugh, knitting. I need a new hobby at my age? Grandmothers are expected to be warm and compassionate and cuddly. Grandpas have no responsibilities. They don't have to tolerate children. They don't have to tolerate anything! They can be racist and make insensitive, off-colour remarks and people think it's adorable. They can dress comfortably. They can tell terrible jokes—I love terrible jokes! As a grandpa, I can play chess in the park in the middle of the afternoon. I can watch the old dubya-dubya two pictures on television.
Well, you are kind of racist and you do love movies about Nazis.
I don't love the Nazis. I love pictures about beating the Nazis.
Still, a lady grandfather? That’s not how nature works. Don’t you think it’s a bit…privileged of you to self-identify in a masculine way. If you weren’t a white woman, you wouldn’t be able to pull this off.
How dare you! I'm blazing a trail for people of all kinds to be able to live openly as Grandpas.
This is too weird.
If you can't handle this, I got a full bag of Werther's Originals and the boxset of Matlock at home, so...
(starts to leave)
No, it's not you. Well, it's you a little bit. It's just...this is not the first time a woman has had a personal identity awakening with me.
Something about dating me triggers an epiphany about a woman's sense of self, I guess? My first girlfriend turned into a Mermaid. My girlfriend at university determined she was a Juggalo. One woman realized she was a Brony. Another became a nudist...that wasn't so bad except she was sushi chef. One girlfriend left me for one of her characters in The Sims game and married him last year...they just adopted Tamagotchi triplets. And my last girlfriend self-identified as a sloth—the animal not the sin.
They all sound adorable.
What happened to normal women?!
That's not a thing.
Lady Grandpa isn't a thing!
Lemme tell you something—this culture is so obsessed with youth. Forty is the new twenty, sixty is the new middle-aged, and thirty-five is barely legal. "Adult" means something dirty and "Mature" means you're over the hill. No one wants to be old and yet our bodies continue to age. I'm watching the Generation X get gray and wrinkly and frail. My disaffected heroes are now afflicted with aches and pains, thinking about life insurance and walk-in tubs. The whole aging population gets lumped together under the zippy label "Zoomer" because no one can really retire and active 70-year-old bristle at being called elderly. Where do I fit in? I'm gonna grow old before I'm allowed to grow up. I've gotta go buy my pants at Forever 21 to play along with society's charade and maintaining a facade of youth. I didn't like being a teenager the first time, why should I fight to hold onto a part of life that I don't identify with simply because society romanticizes it? In my day, old people were allowed to be old. They weren't relevant anymore, but they could sit down and wear loose-fitting pants and soak their teeth in peace. By the time I am legitimately elderly, we'll be having going to rave parties in the all-purpose room in the nursing home and watching Brett and Blaine pop wheelies on their Rascals. Look how vibrant and active we all are! Age is just a number! Ignore the cracking of my crumbling bones—that just means I'm still alive! Why does the grocery store sound like a night club?! We didn't start the fire but maybe we should consider putting it out soon because the smoke is clouding sensible thinking. Youth may well be wasted on the young but comfort is wasted on the old.
Yep. you're a Grandpa, alright.
So? Where does that leave us?
Well, nothing's really changed has it?
Still me. Just a more comfortable me.
I do want you to be comfortable. You know I've never really gone for the heavy eye make-up and the stilettos and the hair products. It all looks like an awful lot of work.
This is what I'm saying.
And nothing else would change? You're not gonna make me call you by some old-man name like Morty or Elmer?
Someday you'll be an old man, Kyle.
You wanna go back to my place and I'll read The Princess Bride to you again?
Will there be kissing?
It's not inconceivable.
As you wish.
Girlfriend offers Boyfriend a hard candy. He takes it and unwraps it as the couple exits together.