Gerald was just as attractive as his profile picture had made him out to be – that is, he hadn’t used a photo from too many years, or pounds, ago. He had the beginnings of a distinguished gray in his hair, a couple wisdom lines around the eyes, a great smile. Despite my best efforts, I could feel my hopes rising.
I endured the waiter’s recitation of specials, then dove back in. “And I read that you’re a doctor? Did I get that right?”
“Technically, yes. But I don’t have an office; I run around treating and doing research on infectious diseases – trying to improve flu vaccines, antiviral medication. Stuff like that.” Hold it together, I told myself, just because he has all of his teeth and is humble about saving the world doesn’t mean anything. But still, maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance here.
Lunch went on. It got better. Gerald was funny, made eye-contact, and didn’t interrupt me – not once. And then things took a turn. But after all, they were going so well; they had to.
I mentioned that my son, Owen, was a big Seattle Seahawks fan.
“This year,” Gerald prognosticated, “I’m afraid Owen will be disappointed. They’re going to go 3 and 13.”
Naively, I laughed. “And you’re so sure about that, because…?”
“Because I can travel backwards through time. I’ve already seen next year’s Super Bowl. Tell him to bet big on the Eagles, if that makes him feel any better.”
I laughed again, but this time from experience. Of course this would happen. Of course I would be on a great date only to learn that he was a nut who had internalized one too many science fiction television shows or fantasy books or whatever. Our food had just arrived, so I consoled myself that
I’d have a great story for the office when I got back that afternoon.
Gerald smiled. “You don’t believe me?”
“No, of course not.” I smiled too. Oddly, now that the cat was out of the bag, I felt more at ease with him. “It’s too bad, you seemed so nice.”
He instructed, “Think of a number between one and a million. Ready?”
“Nine,” he said, correctly.
I raised my eyebrows in mock awe. “Impressive. Except mind-reading and time travel aren’t the same thing. You might have two super-powers?” I was glib, but I was also curious how he did it.
“You told me your number, then I jumped five seconds back. Here, I’ll do it again. This morning, you were out of milk, so you took an ice cream sandwich from the freezer and scraped the ice cream into your coffee.”
This time I didn’t smile. Gerald grimaced. “Okay, that was too much. I won’t jump any more. We’re on even footing for the rest of this date.”
This was creepy. Had I mentioned the ice cream to someone during the day? Had he somehow spied on me that morning? But Gerald just didn’t seem like that kind of creep. Why the hell wasn’t I running away from this nut and this restaurant as fast as I could?
“Promise?” I asked.
I looked him over. “So how’d you get into time travelling?”
“By accident. It was 2003 and I was 25. I missed a flight by five minutes. I was on my way to visit a girlfriend. I couldn’t believe I’d been so stupid. Every atom in my body was screaming, ‘No! I must have another chance! It must be two hours ago!’. And then it was. And I made it to the airport on time.”
“You broke the laws of physics to catch a flight?”
“Yes. Ironically, my girlfriend and I broke up the day after I arrived, but my time-traveling skills remained, and, not to brag, gotten sharper too. This salad is really good, by the way. Just let me know if you want a bite of the smoked duck on top. How’s your soup?”
I looked at the bowl in front of me. Anguished, I cried internally, why must there always be something? Just once give me a skeleton-free closet, or a bat-free belfry, or someone who’s not a lying jerk.
“So what do you use this skill for, besides air travel and creeping out dates?”
“I try to fix things. As best I can, anyways. Stop bad stuff from happening.”
“It sounds like fun, saving the world.”
Gerald grimaced again. “It’s a lot less fun than you’d think. First off, if I stop the bad thing before it’s happened, it’s not clear to everyone that what I’ve just done is for the greater good. Pushing someone out of the way of an oncoming truck is one thing, but sometimes the only way to save him is to not let him cross the street in the first place. That’s harder. Does that make sense?”
I cocked my head. “Give me a for instance.” I was surprised at how easy it was for me to play along. I was playing along, right?
“Here’s the best example. In 2015 a terror group detonated a nuclear device in Los Angeles. I jumped back and warned the authorities. But they didn’t take it as seriously as they should have. Several times I jumped back and several times they failed to stop it. Finally, after more trial and error, the only solution I came up with was to track down one of the instigators back in 2005 when he was only 12 years old. I shot him.”
“Oh.” I didn’t have much to add to that.
“So, yes, I saved the world, but I had to kill a 12-year-old to do it. And it doesn’t end there. Every time I go back that far, I have to do it again. I’ve killed this particular 12-year-old five or six times now.”
I don’t know what expression I had on my face, but it must have been pretty bad, because Gerald responded to it with, “Exactly. Even Machiavelli might have told me to dial it back a little.”
He chuckled. “On the plus side, because of all the preparation and investigation involved, I’m now fluent in Arabic, Pashto, and Spanish.”
I put aside the murdering-12-year-olds thing for a moment. “How long have you been doing this?”
“Back of the envelope, I’d say 300 years.”
“You’re 300 years old? You don’t look a day over 280.”
“I’m 325. Remember, I was 25 when this started. I haven’t tried to go back before the day of the missed flight, in case that messes everything up. Also, I don’t want to have to break up with that girlfriend again.”
I ran the numbers. “You’ve lived these last 20 years 15 times?”
Gerald nodded. “More or less. I don’t go back the full 20 years each go round. I told you it’s not as exciting as it sounds.”
“Are you rich?” I surprised myself with the tactless question. But this is all crazy, so who cares.
Still…oh, what is the proper etiquette for a lunch date with the perfect guy in every way, except for one enormous exception?
Gerald smiled. “No, but I’m comfortable. The other stuff – putting out fires before they start – takes a lot of time, so to speak, so I play the markets just enough to make ends meet. And to fly business class. Business class is pretty nice, actually.”
I decided to broach the subject of exes. Not that it mattered – once lunch was over, there would be no baggage to worry about because Dr. Time and I would be going our separate ways. So the question was just for fun. Just for fun.
“Your profile said single. In 300 years you haven’t been able to find Mrs. Right?”
“That is an excellent question.” Apparently, the explanation is a big deal, because Gerald puts down his fork and moves his plate to the side.
“I’ve been married nine times.”
“Two times were for real. The others were situations where I knew I’d be jumping again, so, what the hell, weddings are fun, right? Also sure to impress you is that I’ve never divorced any of them, so I’m quite the polygamist.”
“You sweet talker. I bet you say that to all the ladies.” But I still wanted to know. “So you just left them? Did you say goodbye?”
“No. When I jump to a point before we’ve met, as far as they’re concerned, I’m a stranger. Why ruin everything and end it with them thinking I’m crazy?”
I took offense. “Why am I the lucky one you decide to be crazy in front of?”
Gerald doesn’t answer the question, and he’s looking a little more serious when he says, “I loved my first wife, but I never told her about my travels. I don’t know why. Immaturity. Scared of her reaction. All of the above. I don’t know.
“Then, one day a plane crashed. A politician on board died and it led to some bad stuff – not quite Archduke Ferdinand consequences, but not far off – I tried a couple small fixes but I couldn’t get him off that plane. In order to get it right, I had to make a big jump back, to before my wife and I met.
“Once I got the situation squared away, I waited for the timeline to catch up and I tried a do-over with her. That was a mistake. The relationship was too unbalanced, with me knowing her so well already, and she just learning about me. We hobbled along for three years, which got worse and worse, before I pulled the plug and jumped back to the day we met. This time I didn’t talk to the cute girl in the park reading ‘On the Road’.”
For a crazy person, Gerald had his details nailed down pretty tight. He went on, “This left me a little jaded, plus I found a few big projects to work on. So my next seven marriages were casual.”
Gerald took a deep breath. “And then, 90 years ago, I met wife number nine. She was the one. We were like this, ” Gerald locked his two forefingers together.
Unbelievably, I found myself getting jealous. I tried to say as cheerfully as I could, “Oh, what was her name?”
He ignored the question, which only made me more jealous. Why, I screamed silently, am I jealous of this screwball and his certainly imaginary ninth wife?
“Our relationship was what I had been waiting two centuries for. She was the only person I ever confided in about my jumping/ And she was fine with it, as I knew she would be. We had three great kids together. We agreed that I should still make short jumps to fix whatever I could, but only while she was at work, so I wouldn’t get ahead of her in the relationship. 200 years is enough, I decided; the world can save itself now.”
At least this put me back on familiar, if unpleasant, ground. I’ve met men who hadn’t come to terms with previous breakups. At best, it’s uncomfortable, and, while I don’t want to appear insensitive, it can be pathetic. And in this particular case, if it’s been a hundred years and he still isn’t over her, then he has issues I don’t think anyone can therapy away.
But I sat there, listening.
“It was liberating, after so many years of making intense decisions about what I hoped was the greater good, to finally be selfish, to spend my time with my wife and family instead of saving a rotten politician because it turned out that the other guy was even worse.”
The waiter arrived at this point to take our plates away. I ordered coffee. I don’t drink coffee. But I didn’t want lunch to end before I had heard how Gerald was going to conclude his ridiculous story.
That’s what I told myself, anyway.
“It sounds perfect. What happened?”
The wistful smile Gerald wore when talking about his wife – my competition, if I have to be honest – faded.
“Something came up that I had to fix. It was big. With her full support, I started making short trips back. But I couldn’t solve it. I needed more time. The day I realized that a big jump was the only way I was going to crack it, my world turned black. I didn’t tell her for a couple weeks. When I finally did, well, when you’re like this, ” and Gerald locked his forefingers together again, “you’re not so good at hiding things. She had already guessed. She also knew what had happened with my first wife. So this was it for us.
“At least she and I got to make the decision together.” Gerald paused to look into his own coffee cup.
“Our children had no idea what was about to happen. Saying goodbye to them was the worst thing I’ve ever had to do.”
“I…” I could think of nothing to say.
After a moment, Gerald went on, “I jumped. That was it. They were gone. And I went to work. I got Ph.Ds in biology and chemistry. A couple times around I took positions in the federal government and the World Health Organization to see if I could make an impact that way. Nothing worked. My last effort was as a doctor. I thought that maybe I’d be able to see something working directly with patients that I hadn’t noticed in a lab. That went snake eyes as well. If there’s a solution, I can’t find it. I’m beaten.”
Gerald picked up his spoon, studied it, and put it back down.
“The virus starts a year from now. History will run its course, and I gave up an incredible family for nothing.”
In hardly more than a whisper, I managed to ask, “Why are you telling me this?”
“My wife and I both knew that I couldn’t go back and try to build our relationship again from the beginning. But I asked her if she wouldn’t mind my stopping by – once it was over – to say hi.”
Gerald pointed at my cup. “You don’t drink coffee, so I know you’re making excuses to stay. One of the last things you told me was that when I come back I was not to let you say no. But I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”
I should have been affronted. I should have laughed at him, or thrown my water in his face. Instead I said, “We’ll have twelve months?”
“I know some tricks that can stretch it to 18.”
So while I did wind up with a great story, I didn’t tell anyone back in the office. For several days I wrestled with how to handle the situation, and all the while I packed and took Owen out of school. Tomorrow the three of us leave for an indefinite vacation. And if it takes too long to get through security and we miss the flight, well, I guess Gerald can fix that.
Todd Wells lives in Chicago. He has three children and one wife. He plays bass in a 1980s cover band, which is sort of like time-travelling. More? Yes, of course, it’s so kind of you to ask. Go here: traveldiaryofamadman.com.