The first time Brian and Heather made love in their new apartment, Brian traveled backwards in time to the Paleozoic Era. Or maybe it was the Mesozoic. He could never keep those straight, even though he’d been a real dinosaur freak as a kid.
It happened at the moment of orgasm. One minute, he was pinned underneath Heather on their futon in the bedroom, her breasts swaying back and forth with the grinding of her hips, the ghostly shapes of unpacked boxes looming through the Manhattan dusk like a crowd of silent onlookers. The next, he was lying in a shallow puddle of steaming, stinking mud, a cloud of insects hovering around his head like an animate mist. A fierce sun beat down through a canopy of giant ferns. He took a deep breath and coughed, spitting out three or four hapless bugs. He still had a bit of a woody, but it was quickly detumescing.
He stood on shaky legs. Rivulets of mud dripped down his thighs. A shadow passed across the ground, and he looked up. A pterodactyl sailed gracefully overhead, a winged Buick close enough to toss a rock at, had there been one at hand.
Rodan, he thought stupidly. His mental processes seemed slowed to a crawl.
In a detached sort of way, he was surprised at his detachment. Time travel, after all. What if he stepped on a butterfly and wiped out his pathetically meager investment portfolio? He thought fleetingly that if he could find the timeline in which the 700 Club existed and stomp its lights out, it would be worth whatever attendant difficulties might ensue.
There was a basso profundo roar from somewhere in the jungle to his left, not very far away. It was answered by a deafening, high-pitched screech off to his right. Another basso bellow, closer still. The exchange put a stop to Brian’s woolgathering, but his legs didn’t want to move. He just stood there shivering, like a lawn jockey made of Jell-O.
The sound of something huge crashing through the ferns galvanized him into action. He turned around and took a flying leap into a stand of waist-high grass, landing with a splash in a sticky bog. Something long and sinuous thrashed underneath him and slithered away. Brian rolled over and looked back at what now occupied the clearing.
A mottled gray-green Sherman tank on chicken legs. Ridiculous, tiny hands. A head so huge in proportion to its body that it looked like any sudden move would snap its neck like a stick.
T-rex, Brian thought. Christ on skis.
The thing opened its mouth and let out another bellow, enveloping Brian in a charnel stink. With the possible exception of a Pixies concert he’d been to a few years back, it was the loudest sound he’d ever heard. Inevitable as slapstick, the answering screech split the humid air a second later. It sounded closer. Brian hoped fervently that they would find some other place to sort out their differences.
He was in luck. With surprising grace and speed, the Tyrannosaurus hurtled itself toward the sound, crashing through the dense jungle. The low bellow of the thunder lizard and the high screech of its unseen antagonist merged into a wall of noise. It sounded like they were turning the jungle into coleslaw.
The sound of their struggle receded into the distance. Brian forced himself to breathe. He sat up and looked around. Jungle so deep a green that it seemed to vibrate. Cartoon blue sky. Air so warm, thick, and moist it made the fetid dampness of a summer afternoon in central Florida seem positively arid by comparison. Bugs enough to rival August in Minnesota.
What the fuck am I doing here? And more to the point, how do I get back?
He played it back in his mind again. One minute, scaling the heights of Heather; the next, cowering in a puddle of filth while giant lizards fought to the death a stone’s throw away.
“Very interesting,” he said aloud, in a fake Viennese accent. His voice sounded strange in the heavy, Mesozoic air. Or maybe it was the Paleozoic. Whatever.
But really, the whole thing was no more difficult to swallow than getting an apartment in Peter Cooper Village. They’d been told that the waiting list was eleven years long.
“Christ in a Cadillac,” he’d said to Heather. “The only institutions with memories that long are the phone company and Sallie Mae.”
He’d even tried to slip the clerk in the rental office a hundred dollars to lubricate the process a bit. He folded the bill in half, tucked it between the second and third fingers of his right hand, and reached across her desk as if pointing out something on their application.
She looked at him as if he’d tried to hand her a fresh, steaming turd.
“You’re going to have to do a lot better than that,” she said.
He shrugged and returned the bill to his pocket, figuring he’d just cratered whatever chances they might have had. Three weeks later, they got a call about a sixth floor two-bedroom with a view of the East River. It was obviously a clerical error, but they weren’t about to question their good fortune.
The mud caking his arms, legs, and torso was beginning to dry, revealing hundreds of tiny, crawling bugs. He stood, brushing them off as best he could. Their previous apartment had been in the East Village, and he’d developed a fairly clinical attitude about insect life.
Some kind of space-time continuum thing, Brian thought. It’s so unlikely to score one of those apartments it’s ripped a hole in the fabric of probability-space.
At the suggestion of a friend of Heather’s who channeled the spirits of deceased pets for wealthy clients on the Upper East Side, Brian had been reading Gary Zukov lately, and his brain was overflowing with pseudoscience babble, like an abandoned couch leaking stuffing.
But where does the sex come in?
He realized this wasn’t the first time he’d wondered that with respect to Heather. He pushed the thought aside.
Orgasm! Whatever process Brian was subject to, it required an intense focus of psychic energy. It just popped him from one niche in space-time to another, like an orange seed squeezed between thumb and forefinger.
Pfft, he thought. Goodbye, Heather. Pfft. Goodbye, New York. Pfft. Goodbye, Imageco.
Brian had a great job at Imageco, a video post production shop. He worked in billing, but everything was pretty much automated, so there wasn’t a whole lot to do. Two or three times a day, he’d knock off a threatening letter to one of their clients; the rest of the time, he sat around with Steve, the resident hacker, watching Hong Kong flicks and drinking Jolt.
His eyes filled with tears.
But wait a minute. If it was the intense psychic energy of orgasm that squeezed him through the damaged region in space-time, maybe that was his ticket back as well: he could wank his way home.
He looked down at his limp member, shrunken to the size of a walnut. He couldn’t imagine being farther from thoughts of erotic bliss than at this very moment.
He looked guiltily around, then realized he had about two hundred million years before there was any chance of interruption. Brian went to work.
He tried to conjure up an image of Heather, but her features blurred, taking on a definite reptilian cast. His resolve receded.
He tried to invoke his old standby, a gin-soaked weekend with Janelle and Giselle, a pair of bisexual video effects editors from Northampton who’d come down to Imageco on consult to subtitle Hiroshima, Mon Amour in Ebonics. This time, however, his mental picture of their gymnastic grappling was painfully suggestive of prehistoric beasts locked in mortal combat.
“The hell with it,” he said aloud. There was a nearby, answering peep.
Brian looked up. Not five feet away, perched on tiny, stick-like legs, was a dinosaur the size of a kangaroo. It had a long, narrow beak and a handsome crest arching over its head like a cartilaginous Mohawk. It tilted its head to the side and let out another peep.
“Shoo,” Brian yelled, waving his free hand. “Go on, get out of here!”
The thing disappeared into the jungle with alarming speed. Brian looked down at his withered Willie. Back to Square One.
From somewhere not far away, the bellow of the T-rex shook the jungle. Brian felt the ground vibrate under his bare behind.
There’s nothing like abject fear to stiffen a man’s resolve. With business-like efficiency, he went back to work. Another roar, considerably closer, hastened the exercise. His hand was covered with tiny particles of grit from the mud, and it felt like he was jerking off with a handful of aquarium gravel.
Through half-closed eyes, Brian saw a gray-green shape pushing aside the ferns. He closed his eyes completely and stroked faster. His nostrils filled with the stink of rotting blood. Another roar split the sky. He–
–arched his back, reaching behind Heather’s firm, plump buttocks to pull her close.
Heather made the sound she usually made when she was just about to come but slipped back from the brink, a cross between a sigh and a moan that rose up from somewhere deep in her chest. She ground against him half-heartedly another couple of times, then rested her head on his chest.
He was filled with the smell of her, buoyed by the faint undercurrent of new apartment effluvia–roach spray, carpet cleaner, mildew.
She looked up into his eyes, the point of her chin digging into his collarbone.
“You seem really distant,” she said.
“It seemed like you just–went away.”
Brian blinked. The last thing he remembered was looking up into the open mouth of the Tyrannosaur. Scraps of rotting meat clung to its teeth. He could see its tonsils.
“I, um–” he stammered.
“I really wish you could just stay…present when we’re making love.” Her full lips turned downwards in a pout.
Well, you see, hon’, space-time is like this rubber sheet stretched across a frame, kind of, and there’s some parts that get stretched thinner than others and I just sort of slipped through this part that got real thin when we scored this crib and–
“I’m sorry, baby,” he said.
She nuzzled his neck and wriggled against him, taking his earlobe between her teeth and biting down gently.
“You want to try again?” she asked.
Brian forced himself to smile. “Sure.”
Brian was having lunch with Steve at Niko’s Nook, a Greek coffee shop on 45th and Lex. He poured cream into his coffee and watched it slosh thickly, like crankcase oil after about thirty-thousand miles. A roach skittered across the counter, and he absently squashed it with his thumb. He gathered the gooey remains in his napkin and returned it to his lap.
“You seem awfully quiet today,” Steve said.
Brian looked up. His distorted reflection stared back at him from Steve’s wraparound, mirrored sunglasses.
“You’re going to think I’m crazy,” Brian said, watching his own lips move as he spoke. He felt like he was talking to himself in the bathroom mirror.
“I already think you’re crazy–you just ordered the souvlaki. What’s going on?”
Brian looked around, making sure there was nobody within earshot.
“Heather and I were, uh, inaugurating the new bedroom yesterday…” He paused. He didn’t know how to say it without sounding like a lunatic.
“I’m sure congratulations are in order,” Steve said, after a polite interval. “Was there something else?”
Brian decided to try a different approach. “Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get an apartment in Peter Cooper Village?” he asked.
“Does the Pope wear a big, stupid hat?” Steve replied. “It’s all I’ve heard you talk about for the last month.”
“Well, don’t you think it’s a little…strange that we got one after three weeks?”
“Sure I think it’s strange. I also think it’s strange Dolly Parton can walk upright. These things happen. What’s your point?”
“When we were making love, right at the critical moment, I traveled backwards in time.” He looked defiantly at Steve. His reflection stared back with an expression of neurasthenic angst.
Steve shook his head. “Is that all? Shit, Bri’, I’ve been married twenty-two years. If I didn’t do a little time traveling every now and then, I’d be ready for a rubber room.”
“No, you don’t get it. I mean I really went somewhere. The Jurassic or something. Christ on roller skates, I almost got my head bitten off by a Tyrannosaurus!”
Steve took his sunglasses off and looked at Brian for a long time. “Did you used to do a lot of acid back in the seventies?” he asked, finally.
“Well, sure, but–”
“Those little orange barrels?”
“I thought so.” He peered at his sunglasses, fogged them with his breath, wiped them on his Young Gods t-shirt, and put them back on. He pulled a pen out of his pocket, scrawled something on a napkin, and pushed it across the table to Brian.
“I’ve got this doctor friend,” he said. “You tell him you’re a friend of mine and ask him to write you a scrip for some Xanax. You’ll be fine.” Then, as an afterthought, he added, “Just don’t drink with it.”
“Thanks,” Brian heard himself say. He stared numbly into the cool mirrored surface of Steve’s glasses as his reflection folded the napkin into a neat square and slid it into his shirt pocket.
“Use ‘I feel’ statements, Heather,” Doctor Fishlove said.
The late afternoon sun coming in through the Venetian blinds threw a pattern of stripes across the stuffed toy bears that lined one wall of the therapist’s office. They looked like they were wearing prison uniforms.
Heather threw her head back. “Okay.” She looked at Brian. “I feel like you’ve been really withdrawn lately. I feel like you haven’t been present in our relationship. I feel like you aren’t interested in me sexually anymore.”
“And how does that make you feel, Brian?” Doctor Fishlove asked. He was an ordinary, Midwestern looking man somewhere on the downhill side of forty, with one disfiguring feature–a small wart perched precisely on the end of his nose. Brian couldn’t take his eyes off it.
“Well, I don’t know.” He paused. “Bad, I guess.”
“Bad,” Doctor Fishlove repeated. “Good. Is there anything you want to say to Heather?”
Actually, there wasn’t. He’d been avoiding sex for the last two weeks, scared that it would send him back into the Mesozoic or whatever. He really wanted to talk to her about it, but there never seemed to be a good time to bring it up.
He wasn’t about to start popping off in therapy about dinosaurs and time travel, though. It would really screw things up. Besides, he’d scarfed a couple of Xanax earlier that morning and it didn’t seem all that important.
“Uh, yeah, I guess.” He tore his eyes away from the wart and looked at Heather. “I acknowledge your feelings. I’ll try to do better.”
Doctor Fishlove beamed. Heather didn’t look convinced. Brian promised himself that he’d talk to her that night. Or poke her. One or the other, anyway.
The remains of an orange were spread across the plate, the colors brightly surreal in the harsh, kitchen light. It was one of those new hybrids, and Brian had had a hell of a time finding a seed for his demonstration. Heather had watched the operation in silence.
Brian held the seed up between thumb and forefinger.
“So we’re in this niche in space-time,” he said. “Poking away, happy as clams. But the fabric of everything has become really weak because we’ve scored this apartment.”
He looked up at Heather. No help there. Brian pushed forward. “All of a sudden, pfft.” He squeezed down on the seed and it flew out of his fingers, sailing past Heather’s shoulder and skidding to a halt on the shiny linoleum floor. “I’m somewhere else. Some when else.”
Heather looked at him without expression for what seemed like a long time.
“Are you going to pick that up?” she asked, finally.
“Uh, sure.” Brian got up and retrieved the orange seed. He flicked it into the trash and sat back down.
“So, what do you think?” he asked.
She kept looking at him.
“Well, say something,” he said.
“I’m leaving you,” she said.
Brian sat in the spare bedroom looking out across the East River. The sun coming up over Brooklyn threw sheets of rippling gold foil across the water. A flock of tugboats pulled a crippled tanker downriver.
Heather had been packing, but the sounds had stopped some time ago, and the silence now seemed to flow out of the back bedroom like smoke.
He heard a noise and turned around. Heather stood in the doorway, her eyes red and swollen.
“I’m going now,” she said. “I’ll send my brother by for the rest of my things. Please don’t try to find me.”
He listened to her footsteps pad down the hall. The front door closed with a final sound. It occurred to him that at that very moment, Heather was time traveling. Into his past.
Brooklyn shimmered through a film of tears. Brian blinked to clear his vision and felt a warm drop trail down his cheek. The cars on the F.D.R. Drive reflected the sunlight in miniature, prismatic stars, swiftly moving.