Christian A. Dumais

What We Talk About When We Talk About Time Travel

The other day, my wife Justyna mentioned how scientists had successfully teleported quantum information. “It’s like Doctor Who,” she said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“He teleports.”

“Doctor Who doesn’t teleport.”

“Yes, he does. He goes from one place to another.”

“He travels in time. He doesn’t teleport.”

“He does teleport.”

“Please stop using that word. He travels through time.”

She took a deep breath. “Let’s not do this.”

Realizing what was happening, I agreed. I felt a chill work down my back, like someone who learned that the water he had just swam in was full of sharks.

My Polish wife and I have a lot of things against us. We come from different cultures and countries. We were raised speaking different languages. We both have different religious beliefs. We are miles apart politically. She sleeps on her back. I sleep on my stomach. She puts her books so that they’re lined up at the front of the bookshelf. I put my books towards the back of the bookshelf. And there’s a nine year difference between us; in fact, I can tell you exactly what I was doing on the day she was born when there was still an ocean between us. All that said, you’d think that we’d disagree an awful lot, but that’s not true. We’ve never argued over religion or politics – in fact, we covered everything from abortion to zealots on our first date. We enjoy our cultural differences. We laugh at our miscommunications.

But all of that goes out the window when we talk about time travel.

It started back when we were dating and we spent a quiet evening watching The Lake House, a drama starring Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves. It wasn’t a good movie, honestly, but I’ve seen worse. When it was over, we had some dessert and talked about the movie.

In the event you’ve never seen this movie, let me give you a taste of The Lake House. Bullock plays a doctor living in a lake house who ends up corresponding – through an unexplained magical mailbox – with an architect played by Reeves who is living in the same lake house exactly two years before. Through the course of the movie (spoilers here, naturally), it’s learned that the architect actually died in the doctor’s arms a year before. Naturally, with the help of the unexplained magical mailbox, she is able to get him to avoid his tragic fate and they eventually meet and live happily ever after.

Justyna did not accept that the doctor could save the architect because the death had taken place. He had died in her arms the year before, so how could she change this? “It had happened already,” she told me over ice cream. I said that it could happen and began to explain how it could be done.

The next thing I remember it was a couple of hours later, the ice cream had melted and we were no longer speaking with another. I recall there being a lot of yelling. I do remember something about getting a large sheet of paper and drawing a diagram with alternate timelines – “Just pretend it’s a fucking map, okay?” – and such, and watching it get torn to shreds.

“Stop doing your teacher voice!” she shouted.

“Stop dismissing the future!” I screamed.

The next morning, I woke up at the very edge of the bed. There was no eye contact. We were clearly still angry, but we weren’t sure why. I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt. After all, I was raised on a steady diet of TARDIS’s and Skynets and Connecticut Yankees and Deloreans and tachyon beams and Quantum Leaps and Necronimicons, so the idea of jumping around time and changing the past or future was perfectly natural to me.

Justyna, on the other hand, was raised on Communism.

So it happened, but we pretended it never happened, as if our past had been overwritten.

A year later, we spent a week in Florida in a condo overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. It was supposed to be a relaxing time together. And it was, for the most part, until she started to read Audrey Niffenegger’s wonderful novel The Time Traveler’s Wife. I had read it previously and recommended it to her. In fact, I had bought her the Polish edition of the book before we came to America.

It started with a random question one sunny afternoon at the pool when she looked up from the book and asked, “How can he not know who she is if he’s already met her when she was a little girl?”

“Because,” I said, “he hasn’t met the little girl yet, but she’s –” I stopped suddenly. But it was too late. Again, there was yelling. Again, I stupidly tried to draw a “map” to explain it all. Again, you could’ve circled the globe in the distance between us in our bed that night. I remember thinking that I was being punished, that this woman that I loved was really a robot from the future sent to argue with me about time travel.

The next day, we started to talk again. We simply ignored what had happened. And a couple of days later when she finished the novel, she said, “That was a beautiful book.” And I smiled and nodded, doing my best to make sure that the fear didn’t show in my face.

The last time we argued about time travel was when I decided that it was important to share Doctor Who with her. “I’ve been watching this show longer than you’ve been alive,” I said. “I spent Saturday nights watching it on PBS – it’s a non-profit American public broadcasting television channel, but that’s not important! – with my brother and dad growing up. It’s the greatest show of all time.”

“What’s it about?” she asked.

“It’s about –” I started before realizing that in my excitement to watch the show with her, I had forgotten one crucial detail, “a British doctor who travels around with his friends.”

She was naturally dubious. I was the one who got her to watch Grace, a movie about a pregnant woman who carries her dead baby to term only to have it come to life with a taste for human blood, which I described as “a drama about a woman dealing with a complicated pregnancy.”

Surprisingly, she enjoyed the episode of Doctor Who, but she had some questions. “Sure, ask away!” I figured she’d want to know about the other Doctors or maybe about where he came from. She said, “How come River knows about adventures they haven’t had yet? That’s not poss–”

“Come on! Of course it is!” I said.

And it happened again. Yelling. Fake cartography. Swear words in Polish. Though time travel doesn’t exist, my memory of this fight is so blurred, it’s almost as if we were brought forward in time – not teleported! – until we finally got to the part where we talked like two rational human beings.

We’ve been married five years ago today. And in March we’ll have been together for eight years total. I don’t know what makes relationships work. I only understand what makes me happy, and our marriage makes me happy beyond belief. I love Justyna truly and deeply. Throw in two children and, well, I guess this is what it feels like to be rich. If I had a time machine, I wouldn’t change a thing.

If you insist on knowing a secret to a successful marriage, I’ll tell you. This is one you never see written down anywhere, and my parents failed to mention it when they were giving me their marriage advice. Here it is: talk openly and honestly about everything from politics to religion to sex, but never ever talk about time travel.

1 comment

  1. john

    i like that clock.

    happy anniversary.

    time travel is not an easy topic to discuss. i thought i understood it all and when we got to it in physics class, i was confused as hell. perhaps you could find a Polish physics book to help Justyna understand it better? 😉

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