Nonfiction

Three Returns:
A Time Travel Story

by Jax Connelly

Jax Connelly reads from "Three Returns: A Time Travel Story

00:00 / 04:05

November 2022

The wind won’t shut up. It’s got teeth even though my Weather app has the temperature at seventy-five degrees—stupidly warm for October in Evanston, Illinois. The grass is blanketed with dead leaves and cigarette butts, synthetic blending slyly into organic, and when the wind turns tantrum it all whips around me in a blur of orange-gold.

       I never used to sit in this park, even though I lived in a studio in a courtyard building across the street for almost a year. There’s a rehab center kitty-corner and patients were always wandering around, looking a little dazed, cramming themselves nine to a picnic table or four to a bench, it always smelled exactly like it smells now, when I would walk by in the early morning on my way to the office job I hated: of weed and cigarettes and industrial-grade detergent.

      I’ve always loved the way the smell of weed mingles with the smell of cigarettes, especially on a crisp day—the implication of something burning, evidence of some small flame. It wasn’t a bad combination, just one I didn’t want to get involved with. I was more afraid when I lived here, I guess. I must have thought I mattered more than I did, to believe these threadbare people trying to recapture a scrap of what they’ve lost would pay me any attention at all, let alone negative attention, to believe I was somehow separate from them, another category of person altogether: immune to ordinary darknesses like addiction and getting older.

      Now I’m the one who must look suspicious, like an intruder in their midst, sitting here alone wearing hand-me-down headphones held together by painter’s tape, scribbling furiously in a notebook. I’ve been listening to a playlist I made when I lived across the street, back when Spotify first launched and I was discovering, embarrassingly late, bands like Bright Eyes and Arcade Fire and The Airborne Toxic Event. “The sun fell behind you and never stood up,” sings The National through my headphones, as the strangers start drifting in my direction.

Her cigarette is half gone; his isn’t lit. I slide one headphone behind my ear so I can hear what he’s asking me: “Are you from ______?”

       “No—I used to live over there,” I answer, waving behind me, a gesture they interpret as an invitation to sit down. The woman is distracted as she swings her legs over the picnic table bench opposite mine, looking over my shoulder at someone walking by. I flinch when she slams her palms on the surface of the table and hollers something about how fucked up it is to misuse your Link card and smoke in the stairwell.

The man sits down next to me, not blinking. “You got a boyfriend?” he asks. He’s been staring at me, balancing his unlit cigarette delicately between his long, elegant fingers.

      “What are you smoking?” I offer, by way of a reply, and his face flickers.

      “What you wanna smoke?” he asks, eagerly, glancing quickly around at the clumps of people whose masks are dangling off their chins, as if he’s certain he could find it for me.

      “No, I’m good,” I assure him. “Spirits or Marlboros, though, usually.”

      “I like Marlboros,” he approves, nodding sagely, and I commiserate, “Spirits take     too long.” The woman starts yelling about spirits—the ethereal kind. “That bitch got what she deserved,” she declares, over and over. She shows us the scars on her wrists from where she tried to carve the spirits out, and then she climbs on top of the table to address anyone who might be listening: “I am thirty-five years old and if I want to leave the premises I will damn well do as I please.” She doesn’t leave the premises, though. She sits back down, looking triumphant.

      I remember when thirty-five sounded old. Of course, it doesn’t anymore, now that it’s only four years away. I was twenty-two when I moved in across the street, my first time living on my own after college, a time in my life I’ve been trying so hard to write about, lately, it feels like I’m inventing it, and of course I am, to a certain extent. I’ve recently become obsessed with time, specifically writing as a form of time travel, of getting “unstuck from time,” as they say on the TV show Lost, the massive effort of trying to access this most loaded piece of my life that is, for the most part, closed off to me now. Most days, these days, I feel nothing, and then sometimes I’m on a train or a bus or an escalator, some kind of big thing whose job it is to move people from one place to another, and suddenly it feels like there’s a piece of glass lodged in my throat, I’m so scared and sad I want to howl. I was sitting in one of those moments after I staggered off the Metra from Ravenswood and first sat down at this table, stewing in this panicked feeling, like for a second I was twenty-two again, needing and failing to understand, “This is it, whatever it is you’re currently in the middle of, it’s about to be over, time’s up.” Like I was screaming at a past version of myself: “Please recognize what you are inside of while you are inside of it.”

      The man hasn’t stopped staring at me since he sat down. “You got a boyfriend?” he asks again, and I shake my head, studying my hands. I did have someone, back when I lived here. I’d pined after L. for most of college before they finally shrugged, on our graduation night, “Why not,” and we spent the next three years achingly, dazzlingly in love, the way you can only love when you’re in your early twenties: more sustainably than a teenager and more starry-eyed than an actual adult. I’m more aware of it now that I’m older, I think, how every beginning contains its own doom, but I wasn’t, back then, when I had no reason to believe love couldn’t save my life, when everything felt like winning, even losing, when everything was crowded and throbbing and everything hurt.

      “Good,” the man decides, about my current lack of a boyfriend. He’s smiling in my direction, shyly, sans eye contact. “Do you have a phone?”

      My phone is sitting on the table in between us, so there’s no way to lie. “I’ll go get mine,” he says, then adds, quickly, “I like your bag.” My backpack is at least five years old and all the zippers are broken, but I thank him anyway. “Do you need a light?” I ask, an obvious and clumsy deflection which he, gracefully, accepts. I dig through the pockets but I can’t find my lighter. I would have bet money that it was in the side pocket with my hand sanitizer and backup earbuds but there’s nothing there, it must be at home, in the drawer with my Spirits.

      “What’s your name?” he asks me, once I’ve given up.

      “Jax.”

      “Jess,” he says, nodding, as the woman informs us she’s smoking Mavericks. Without asking, the man plucks her cigarette from between her fingers and lights his own off the end—a gesture so intimate and worn she doesn’t even notice it’s happening. By the time she realizes her cigarette is gone and demands he return it to her, it’s already back in her hands.

II

      The seagulls keep flying into the wind and the wind keeps pushing back at them so it looks like they’re not moving at all, just suspended mid-air, beaks and eyes open, until the wind wins and forces them down into the waves. There’s an empty take-out container floating face-down in the water a few feet off the shore. When the gulls crash-land there, they splash all around the garbage, sometimes squawking, beady eyes fixed on the half-naked couple a few rocks away from mine who are feeding each other tortilla chips, laughing and clapping their hands. When they get up to leave, they’ll dump the crumbs into the lake and then the empty bag, too. The man will finally put his shirt back on—some kind of flashy sports polo, probably soccer; L. used to have one just like it—while the woman smokes a cigarette, then flicks the butt toward the spot in the water where the seagulls are trilling, content and oblivious to how much humans suck.

      I’m sitting on a flat rock in the shade but the sun is glinting off the leaves of the trees so that they look like glitter. The rock below me is slick with lake water and covered in long moss that ripples gently in the waves like human hair. The wind in the trees is roaring like when you hold your ear up to a seashell, which is supposed to sound like the ocean but which is actually too constant, too persistent, for that to be the right simile. Big waters like this are more cyclical. It’s so windy I’m worried my hat is going to fly off my head and land in the water where I’ll never get it back. When I first sat down on this rock there was a group of teenage girls to my left, but they’re gone now. The wind keeps carrying syllables of the couple’s conversation in my direction, but nothing whole enough to form full words, let alone sentences.

      There are signs all along the lake that say NO CLIMBING STANDING SITTING ON ROCKS, a crime apparently prohibited by City of Evanston Code 7-10-3. Some warnings are more effective than others. I came across a poem, the summer I turned twenty-seven and left D.C. to return to the Midwest, called “The capacity for true love expires at age 25.” The poem begins, “At some point I quit trying to do good / and tried only not to do damage.” Logically, D.C. is the city that should define me, that should maintain a uniquely powerful hold even as I move further away from it. I spent five whole years there, after I left Evanston, it was the setting of my coming-out, three failed love stories, my first big-kid job, the discovery that I am not, in fact, immune to darknesses like addiction, several recoveries and several relapses, my first cringe-worthy attempts to Be A Writer. But D.C. is just a place I once lived; Evanston is the place that feels like mine.

      It was only eight minutes on the Metra from Ravenswood and nobody asked where I was headed so I rode for free—something that always makes me feel giddy and guilty, like I’ve committed a crime, and technically I have. FARE EVASION IS PROSECUTABLE BY LAW, said a sign across the aisle. Suddenly the cicadas are screaming louder than the wind and the water, but it only lasts a few seconds. Once, I knew all about cicadas—how it is they make their songs with their bodies, rubbing their legs furiously together—but I can’t remember now. A green fly lands on my knee, then flies away. A seagull honks like it’s protesting something important. “I’m just dying to be unhappy again,” sings Frightened Rabbit through my headphones.

      I leave my position on the rocks and walk north along the lake, which is sprinkled with all manner of signs: KEEP OUT, PRIVATE PROPERTY, NO TRESPASSING in stark black and red, plastered all over a fence guarding an empty lot, the lake a gleaming blue shard in the distance. FOR YOUR ENJOYMENT PLEASE ELIMINATE: DOGS LITTER, reads a wooden block at the entrance of the expansive park where families have gathered in clumps with their grills and their coolers, their frisbees and their dogs. It’s Labor Day weekend and evidence of COVID-19 is nowhere to be seen. There’s a sign that says this park is pesticide-free, 100% organic, and another that warns none of the tables or benches have been sanitized. PLEASE MAINTAIN 6-FT DISTANCE, another pleads, in an appeal that pretty much no one is heeding. I might be the only person who is wearing my mask properly but maybe mine would be slung under my chin, too, if I was in the company of anyone other than myself. I see another PLEASE ELIMINATE sign, but the DOGS carving has been colored in brown, so only LITTER is legible from far away. A red Solo cup is tucked into the crevice between two trunks of the same tree, and a chewed-up tennis ball lies abandoned in the dirt underneath a picnic table. I sit down because the fence that would normally block the view of the lake is partially felled, leaning toward the ground as if it’d rather be lying down there.

      In time-travel theory there are two main types of paradoxes: the grandfather paradox, which is that if you were to travel back in time and kill your grandfather when he was a child, it would make your own birth impossible; and the bootstrap paradox, which is when a sequence of events is among the causes of another event, which is in turn among the causes of the first-mentioned event, resulting in a causal loop whose origins cannot be determined. I’m no scientist, but I’ve seen all six seasons of Lost several times each, which is how I know: The main gist is that time travel is possible, but there are rules. You can’t change the past. If it happened that way once, it’ll happen that way again, and on and on and on.

      A couple walks by with fold-up chairs and swollen grocery bags and they start climbing over the broken fence at exactly the same moment a four-wheeler rolls up on the sand path which I’d remembered being gravel. The person behind the wheel, wearing a shirt with STAFF printed across the back in bold letters, starts gesturing at them impatiently. The couple looks guilty and I offer a sympathetic facial expression in their direction, like, “Bad timing,” but they don’t notice, or if they do, they don’t acknowledge me.

      Words, words, everywhere, and they can only do so much. Nine years have passed since I lived in the studio down the street—over a third of my life—and now the years are going to keep marching on, away and away from this speck-of-sand time period when the whole world was visible but still TK. There is so much of that feeling I will never be able to capture on the page. As a container for experiences, language might as well be a pile of single-use plastics: flimsy and see-through and so susceptible to pressure. The glass in my throat is less about L., who just happened to be there at the time, and more about how I will never be that young or that open ever again, how pretty much everything is a function of timing. I cannot get back there, not through language or craft or even seasonal playlists, any of my usual tricks.

      The four-wheeler rolls off while the couple walks away in the direction from which they came. A few minutes later, a bouncy dude wearing a tank top and a baseball cap walks up to the broken fence and climbs over it, then sits on the rocks taking pictures with his phone. A wasp keeps hovering ominously around my backpack and a dog keeps barking in the distance, short and staccato and constant, to the beat of “I Love It” by Icona Pop, which is now playing through my headphones. The wasp chases me away from the table and I watch from six feet away while the man climbs back over the fence, crosses the sand path and uses his toes to drag the tennis ball out from under the table. There’s another one next to where I’m standing now, looking worse off than the first.

       “Ate up,” one of my failed love stories would remark. I’d ask him to explain what that means, and he’d just keep repeating it, as if saying a word over and over could ever make it true.

 

III

      I walk into the indie coffee shop on my way to the lake and all the tables are pushed against the walls, the chairs folded up in stacks.

     “How’s it going?” I greet the barista, who has wide-set cat eyes and delicate high cheekbones, like New Zealand dreampop singer Lorde.

      “It’s going pretty nice,” she replies, bored. “How about you”—more a statement than a question.

       “Colder than I thought,” I offer, ready to do the whole dance, but she doesn’t take the bait, just raises one gracefully arched eyebrow slightly above her mask and asks, “Oh?”

      She's probably twenty, maybe twenty-two—either way, impossibly young. What did I think my life was going to look like in nine years, when I was her age? Bigger than this, I guess. Since I moved to Ravenswood over the summer I’ve been taking the Metra up to Evanston once or twice a month. I am looking for something, and I keep returning again and again as if I will find it here, even though I don’t know what it is, whether it is real or whether it is remembered, where the line is between those two versions, if a line exists at all. Wandering around here always makes me feel weepy and unmoored from time, like I can’t remember which parts of my life were arranged in what order, the years leaking forwards as well as backwards.

      I’m trying to write about being twenty-two in hindsight because I wasn’t writing when I was actually living here. I barely even kept a journal, even though I’ve written at least weekly, otherwise, since I was seven years old. This year, the Evanston year, there’s only the page from October when I had a pregnancy scare, and the page from November when L. told me they loved me for the first time, and the page from January when I made a big list rounding up the various things I’d done in 2012: “a lot of coke / graduated college / fucked L. in the back of the U-Haul / bought a futon / constructed a futon / totaled a car / signed a lease / made baklava.”

      That’s it. A whole year, and “fucked L. in the back of the U-Haul” is what’s left. If I concentrate hard, I can access some memories: Cooking vegan chili in my alley kitchen. Walking a mile and a quarter to the office while sucking down a protein shake. Reading Margaret Atwood’s entire bibliography here at the indie coffee shop and on the benches along the water, the lake pressing up against the shore as if it was jealous. I went to a free chocolate tasting at the Ten Thousand Villages a few blocks from my apartment and I broke my arm a few blocks from the Ten Thousand Villages by tripping off a curb and landing too hard on my palms and this was before they changed the opioid laws so that’s how it started, later: stockpiled Norco with my name printed up the side of the bottle. Here in Evanston the stakes were lower: six-packs of blackberry pear cider from the Trader Joe’s down the street that I drank alone, sitting at the little white table I rescued from a church garage sale for two crinkled dollars. I was living paycheck to paycheck, still paying off my car, no savings. I can’t remember if I had health insurance; my parents may have kicked me off their plan back in college after I got so drunk I passed out in the bathroom at a bar, pants around ankles, and had to be wheeled into an ambulance on a stretcher. My sister got married the fall I moved here and I don’t even recognize myself in the photos: me twenty-five pounds heavier, wearing a strapless dress with a sweetheart neckline, hair like a new mom or a mop, earrings down to my shoulders, awkward and unsteady in a pair of cheap black heels I never wore again. I wore these great turquoise skinny jeans on the drive up to Beloit and I can’t remember what happened to them. Sometimes, during this year, my best friend would take the L up from Lincoln Park and we’d sprawl on my rug eating oily pumpkin bread, watching DVDs like The Princess Bride on the old box TV I’d pinched from my parents’ basement. Sometimes L. would take a seventeen-hour Greyhound from D.C. and sleep with me in my childhood bed for a few days, their feet hanging off the edge of the mattress, and in the mornings we’d scramble eggs and dance around to Muse in our underwear. 

      Sometimes I would ride my bike down to the city, get myself lost and unlost again, but mostly it was just me alone in that studio, trying to figure out who I was gonna be.

      I squint, dumbly, at the chalked menu on the wall behind the barista; I’m not wearing my glasses and it might as well be another language. I ask for a small black coffee and she asks, sans question mark, whether or not I want cream. “Just black,” I repeat; that'll be $2.50. As I'm running my card she looks me over thoughtfully. “You have a really cool style,” she decides. I glance down skeptically at my overalls and Kentucky radio station t-shirt and oversized flannel and hiking boots. “Thanks,” I say, with a question mark, in case she's making fun of me for wearing clothes that have been in my closet since the 90s. “Can I use your restroom?”

      “Sorry, we’re closed to the public,” she replies, in that same polite monotone, as if we’re two-dimensional characters in a comic strip, speech bubbles floating over our heads. Mine would contain an ellipsis, no actual words. I don't envy her working here at the indie coffee shop during COVID-19. There is no right time for a pandemic but I am at least grateful this didn’t happen when I was in my early twenties, back when I was surviving off cans of beans and the electrifying truth that anything could happen and anything would.

      If it's a form of time travel, coming up here over and over and trying to write about it, it’s only true in the scientifically plausible sense. By which I mean, there are rules: I might travel forwards and backwards along a continuum, but I cannot change the events as they already occurred. There are no timelines where I inhabit it as robustly as I feel I should have, in hindsight, this perpetual liminal year when I was just barely an adult, because it’s only possible to be that here, that present, when you don’t know what’s coming for you next. Possibility replaced by inevitability: As they say on Lost, “Whatever happened, happened.” I may spin alternate worlds where I get to stay there as the me I am now, but that is all they will be—spun like webs, made of dead things and dust. By which I mean, if I were to get back there, after already turning twenty-five and twenty-eight and thirty, it would be a distinctly narrower experience: the truth that anything could happen hollowed out by the truth that most things don’t.

      It’s late September now and the path to the lake is eerie compared to the last time I was here, just a few weeks ago—Labor Day weekend, every surface heaving with people not wearing their masks. On my way to the public bathrooms, I remove my own and smoke two Spirits, lighting the second one off the end of the first just before it burns out. I spot three people carrying their dogs, dogs that are too big to be carried, plus a clump of teenagers, one of them wearing an outfit almost identical to mine. Maybe enough time has passed that overalls + hiking boots + an oversized flannel now constitutes a “style.”

      I think about all the autumns that have accumulated, and all the people I thought I was going to become and love and know who never materialized. There is still time, of course; just so much less of it.

 

I

      “I gotta get going,” I announce, abruptly, rising from the picnic table and slinging my backpack over my shoulder. “It was nice meeting y’all.”

The woman is humming off-key, paying me no mind. “Damn, Jess, you’re tall,” says the man, looking me up and down in wonder and taking a long sip of his cigarette. He exhales out of the corner of his mouth and asks, “So can I call you or what?”

“No,” I apologize, smiling like a tour guide, “but enjoy the day.”

“You enjoy your day,” he nods, cordially. “And enjoy those long legs.”

      I cross the street and walk the perimeter of my old building, trying to remember which windows were mine, whether they faced the courtyard or the parking lot. I thought I remembered moving out the back down an open-air staircase, but there are no open staircases; it must have been closed. I take my long legs a mile down Main Street to the lake and sit down on a bench that bears a little plaque: “For People Who Enjoy the Lakefront From Lowell & Fay.” Thanks, Lowell & Fay. There are a few nuts out in the October water, wearing swim caps and goggles, and a few couplets arranged sporadically around the beach. A young woman swivels her fold-up chair around so her back is to the water, then spends several minutes taking selfies. An old man feeds his bulldog water from his own water bottle and most of it splashes onto the ground. Two middle-aged women pass by on the path, hands clasped behind their backs, masks secured snugly around their ears, the entire width of the path between them.

      Here is what my life looks like, now that I am thirty-one: I live alone in a studio in Ravenswood with my dog and hundreds of books. I am not in love. I am not in touch with my family. My best friend, my only friend, lives in New Jersey now, eight hundred miles away. We video chat every Saturday. Every other day I run around the graveyard. Once a week I walk half a mile to the grocery store. Mostly I sit in my bed with ice packs on my knees, my dog snoring beneath a pile of blankets. I grade papers. “Beautiful observation.” “Can you push harder at this idea?” “Evidence, please,” I suggest, sixteen times in a row. I try to write. I watch a lot of reality TV, sometimes for seventeen hours at a time, sometimes instead of sleeping. I forget to sleep. I forget to eat. I eat Cheez-Its or Sour Patch Kids. I run out of Sour Patch Kids. I walk half a mile to the grocery store. The rest—where is it? The pandemic brings loneliness into sharper focus but the pandemic is not at fault. I can’t go backwards. I am not going forwards. I only spent one of each season here in Evanston, and all I have left is bits and pieces, and still sometimes       I feel so nostalgic for this time of my life it makes me physically ill.

       I remember the first time this happened—longing turned inside-out, longing turned corporeal. Three years before I moved into the studio down the street, when I was nineteen and in love with L. and they didn’t love me back, not yet, we watched the series finale of Lost on their laptop, probably via illegal Torrent, in the old house on our college campus that served as a hotel for the sick and the in-between. They were on their way up to Minnesota for the summer, some kind of backwoods camp counseling job, and I was about to leave to study abroad in Australia, and we weren’t going to see each other for two-hundred and eleven days, I counted them out one by one in my planner and wrote a careful tally next to each date, 211 all the way down to 1, weeping like somebody had died.

      In my memory I watch out the window while they walk away down the little sidewalk. I watch out the window while they stop at a flowering tree, just for a moment, all that long lean muscle browned inside a homemade cutoff tank top, mess of golden curls shrouding their head like a halo. I watch out the window while they reach up with outstretched fingers to touch one of the blossoms at the end of one of the branches, in this image that’s imprinted in my memory now, over a decade later, as one so serene and so swollen with longing, distended all out of proportion with that particular ache of being left behind.

      In my memory the tree is flowering pink and wild like the National Mall in April, but surely that’s a trick of the mind. Surely there were no such trees in Bloomington, Illinois, the bumfuck Midwestern town in the middle of nowhere where we attended college, surely that’s the later years leaking backwards, the years that came after, the years when we were finally together, the years it took us to realize we weren’t supposed to be, in that apartment on the hill above the Arlington Cemetery, the sludgy smear of the Potomac beneath it. Surely that’s all those other D.C. memories transposed over this older, flimsier one to bolster it, make it even more beautiful.

      But maybe it wasn’t beautiful. Maybe it wasn’t that poignant, when it actually happened, maybe it was simple, straightforward, matter-of-fact: someone I loved walking away from me, and pausing, not to look back, but to notice something small and green, on the threshold of becoming something else.

      It’s a long walk from the beach to the Purple Line, and now that the sun is setting the wind is way too aggressive for the clothes I’m wearing. I stand on the L platform shivering, shuffling my feet from side to side, grateful at least that I don’t have to pee or shit. My Bluetooth headphones start beeping, then die, and my backup is a tangled pair of old earbuds, the rubber inserts covered in a thin film of whatever accumulates at the bottom of a backpack you never officially clean out. The left one still works, just barely. My thighs have erupted into angry goosebumps, black with the hair I stopped shaving years ago, and the stir-fried smell of my leftovers from lunch is mingling with the Aveda lotion I rubbed into the backs of my hands at the lake in a way that is making me nauseated. “I’m coming up only to hold you under,” sings Band of Horses, faintly, into my left ear.

      On the way home, the Red Line passes Addison without stopping, without warning. The guy across from me looks up at the loudspeakers and raises his hands into the air, palms up, like, “Really?” But his face looks resigned, not surprised. I get off at Belmont so I can transfer to the Brown. The guy gets off too. We stand side by side on the platform, not acknowledging each other, waiting for the train to appear and take us back in the other direction.

JConnelly.jpg
Jax Connelly
Chicago, IL, USA

“I spend a lot of time trying to access the past in a visceral way, through the words I was writing then or the errands I was running or the music I was listening to or the objects left behind by the people I used to love. Maybe it’s because if the past is still existing somewhere inside me, readily accessible, then I haven’t lost what I thought I lost, or at least not in the irrevocable way I thought I lost it.”

 

Jax Connelly (they/she) is an award-winning writer whose creative nonfiction explores the intersections of queer identity, unstable bodies, and mental illness. Their work has received honors including three Notables in the Best American Essays series, Nowhere Magazine’s Fall 2020 Travel Writing Prize, first place in the 2019 Prairie Schooner Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest, and the 2018 Pinch Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction, among others. Her essays have also appeared in Fourth Genre, [PANK], The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, Ruminate, Pleiades, and more.

 

Website

 

jaxconnelly.wixsite.com/writer