Does love ever end?
I'll never know if you get this letter. I've handwritten three copies and delivered them to lawyers who I think work for long-lived firms. But I can't say for certain. How could I? What does a veterinarian know about law firms?
At least being a veterinarian means I have a job, which translates to a home, food—a relatively comfortable life, all things considered.
I miss you. I miss our world, too, but I miss you more than anything.
I know you're wondering where I've been, why I didn't come home, and I'll tell you in a moment. But first, I need to explain how I got here because where I am only makes sense when you understand the how part.
Remember the last time we made love? It was a weekday. The chills you sent through me still linger in my mind and body. We stayed up late, way too late for a work night, and the next morning we were both basket cases, though basket cases with broad, satisfied grins.
When I ran out the door to work, I was in such a fog that I didn't wind my watch.
While dashing from the train station to the clinic, I glanced at my stopped watch.
When I returned my gaze to the street, I noticed the strangest thing. I don't know how to describe it other than a vision of old New York City, complete with gas lamps, men on horseback, and an elevated train engine puffing black smoke. There were no skyscrapers. Policemen wearing helmets and double-breasted, gray uniforms stood on the corner nearest to me. I lost my balance on a broken cobblestone and nearly fell on my face. I chalked up my hallucination to sleep deprivation and the alcohol still in my blood from the wine we shared at 4 a.m. That’s important, and I’ll get back to the alcohol in a moment.
I didn't mention my sleep-deprived mirage when I came home after work, because I felt ashamed, especially about going to work while intoxicated. Forgive me for not telling you. Perhaps if I had, you would have put two and two together, and I wouldn’t be writing this letter.
When I experienced another vision, I still didn’t tell you. I’m sorry.
Who wants to reveal they’re hallucinating? Dreams are fun to share, but when your brain’s wiring might be scrambled—I didn’t want to acknowledge that. And I especially didn’t want to worry you about something I expected would go away on its own.
Here’s what happened the second time, three days after my first hallucination:
As I stepped out the clinic door, I saw policemen dressed in turn-of-the-century uniforms, so realistic that Hollywood could not have done better. Walking down Spring Street were women in ankle-length black dresses and pushing tall, metal strollers. There was a man wearing jeans, a white shirt, and a gray vest selling clams from a wooden cart. I watched two brown and two white horses pull a streetcar.
This time, I thought I was under the influence of antihistamine. It was 6:45 p.m., about an hour after I popped two Benadryls. My watch last ticked at 2:35 p.m. One day I'll remember to wind my watch, I told myself. I should have heeded my own words.
Give me a few more moments, Becky. I assure you I’m not painting a portrait of madness. Your husband isn’t insane, though I wish I were. I wish I were writing to you from a psychiatric hospital.
I’ll describe the third time I had these visions.
I had messaged you that I was going to have drinks with Dr. Gordon after work. Two beers, a stopped watch, and this time it was more than just ghostly apparitions. March 15, 2020, was the last you heard from me until this letter.
You know how photos of old New York are in black and white because color photography hadn’t been invented yet? Those photos weren’t far from the truth: The world back then was mostly black and white, with dabs of brown and gray here and there. Color was the exception.
I know because I'm in 1790.
I have traveled into the past, my love. Not once, but twice.
The first time I landed in 1905, 115 years from our 2020. The second time, I traveled another 115 years.
In my here and now, in 1790, New Yorkers are still celebrating the Revolutionary War.
There's no such thing as flush toilets. Bed and comfortable are two words that don’t yet go together. My lower back is a perpetual knot, and bed bug bites dot my legs. Most days, lunch and dinner consists of corn and beans, accompanied by beef, venison, or pork. Meat is smoked, salted, or dried because refrigeration is still over half a century away. Cows are plentiful in New York, so there’s ample milk and cheese. I miss Benadryl. Damn allergies. But I miss you the most.
Benjamin Franklin died this year. Had he still been alive, I might have visited him and suggested he invent the light bulb, offering a few ideas I remember from tenth-grade science. Reading by candlelight loses its charm after a few nights.
Thank goodness for our South Africa trip for which we got nearly every vaccine in existence. Dysentery, typhoid, cholera, scarlet fever, measles, and other diseases are as common as stray dogs. I’m smiling when I think about South Africa. I remember the savanna, where we watched a herd of elephants crossing a river like they were the only creatures in the world, the landscape awash in their thunder. I remember watching giraffes eat leaves on tall trees as we held hands.
Here’s what I know about how I travel in time. The first time I looked at my stopped watch while under the influence, blurry afterimages of the past played in front of me. The second time, the visions of the past were more in focus. And the third time I saw my stopped watch while having taken a brain-affecting drug, I fell through the door between here and then.
I believe time traveling has something to do with my Grand Seiko Spring Drive. I don’t think this would have happened with a regular mechanical or quartz watch. Spring Drive is a technology I’ve admired but never fully understood. It's half mechanical, half electric, deploying magnetic braking instead of gears like a regular watch. That’s as far as my guess goes because the watch’s technology and how it relates to time travel are Ph.D. level stuff. Maybe it's got to do with pulsars, gravity wells, Einstein's ghost, some chemical or radioactivity in our apartment, or my DNA. I wish I could ask H.G. Wells, but he won’t be born for another seven decades.
I've got a good job. I'm a veterinarian in 1790 with skills from 2020. I'm the vet equivalent of a rock star. The clinic where I work, housed in a twenty-year-old barn, is called Carl's Cows and Cats, and it's precisely where the Empire State Building will be one day. Maybe you can read about it in a history book.
So that's it. That's what happened. More than anything, I wish I could be with you, but the universe doesn’t always give us what we want. Please have the best life you can. I love you forever.
April 2, 1790
No, no, no! What have you done?
I received the letter you sent to Carl’s Cows from 1788. Writing Hold for Recipient on the envelope worked. I hope you get this one because it's the last I will send. Don't write to me again. Please don't. Stay where you are.
I wish I had told you not to try. I never imagined you would buy a Spring Drive watch and attempt to travel in time, let alone succeed. Throw your watch into the East River.
I jumped to 1675 to send you this letter. Why are your time jumps 116 years, while mine are 115 years? Don't answer that! Don't travel again because you'll land in 1672. Just don’t, I beg you. Stay in 1788. Better times are coming, with railways, steamboats, and more. The patent for the cotton weaver will be issued in two years. You don't want to live in the 17th century when you can be in the 18th. Trust me on that.
I’ll write to you every day from 1675.
I love you more than you can know.
These are turbulent times. I’m going to leap tomorrow, but want to tell you something I figured out: If you encounter danger, pull out the crown on your Grand Seiko and it will stop. You don’t have to wait for the watch to wind down to time travel.
Your next leap will be into the world before Europeans came to America. It’s different, Becky. America is quiet, pristine, tranquil. Nature is in technicolor. Autumn leaves don’t just glow red, gold, and orange; they shimmer as if each leaf can’t wait to float from its branch and join the rainbow blanket that covers the ground.
Do you have enough Benadryls? If you run out, find a native healer. Their concoctions will provide the psychotropic kick your brain needs for time travel.
I’ve found friendship among the Iroquois. It’s strange knowing I’m the first white person they’ve seen. They taught me their language, and I’m teaching my new friends veterinary medicine, including how to make penicillin from mold, as well as showing them surgery. The Iroquois cultivate various plants that can be adapted for anesthesia. When Europeans arrive in about a century, the Iroquois will be light years more advanced in veterinary science than the Europeans.
The Iroquois have adapted the veterinary skills I’ve taught them to human medicine. I wonder if I’ve changed history.
I would stay in this time forever if only I could be here with you.
Be safe, Becky.
It doesn't make sense for you to jump again just so we can leave messages for each other, because when you travel next it will be 1092.
I think 1092 was nearly a hundred years before Native Americans learned to turn animal skins into writing parchment. We won't be able to leave notes no matter how much we want to; there’s nothing for us to write on or with.
Stay when you are.
This is the end of the road for us. Time travel is a one-way ticket to the past where we can never meet.
Bye forever, my love.
I understand. I’m glad you didn’t listen to me and are still traveling back in time. Has there ever been a greater journey? Although we’re not together, we’re sharing this adventure and our lives.
It's cold. I'm sure we're in the last ice age, some 12,000 years in the past. It takes a long time to carve a message on stone. I'm doing okay. My vet skills have a nice side benefit. I made winter coats from animals I hunted. I will leave a coat for you at the same place, where Carl's will be millennia from now. The coat will be old by the time it reaches you, but it's double-layered mammoth and bison and will still keep you warm. I hope I remembered your size.
We need to talk about something I’m sure you’ve noticed, too. The distance we’re jumping is increasing and accelerating. If I were a cosmologist, perhaps I could calculate how far back we now travel with each leap. Whenever we are, it’s prehistory. It’s good we’re carving messages on stone because the distance between us is longer than parchment would survive.
My sweet Becky,
It's warming up. Do you feel it? The ice age is almost over, or rather it hasn't begun. A warmer climate means it will be easier to find psychotropic plants or make mead to facilitate our travel. Another jump or two and spring will cover the planet. Have tulips and dandelions even evolved yet?
Meet me at our favorite outdoor cafe?
It's been a year. I haven't heard from you. Where are you? I'm worried. I've counted 365 sunrises. I'm going to jump soon. I'll carve another message and leave it at Carl’s.
You're alive! Me, too! I got your carving. Writing on stone isn't always reliable, it seems. How are you? When are we? The era of dinosaurs hasn't begun, so we must be over 200 million years in the past. They were as big as the movies portrayed, but who knew that dinosaurs didn't care for human meat? What a relief that was. File this under useful information for time travelers.
Hard to breathe in the methane atmosphere. You floated by, as beautiful as ever.
It’s magical, isn’t it? Swirls of gold and white, like the soft ice cream I devoured after school when the truck came jingling by. In the blackness, fireflies encircle me—thousands, millions, billions, each a different color. I never knew so many colors existed.
We’re near the end of our journey, Becky, at the beginning of the universe.
How can we even write? With muons and quarks on an atomic notebook? Are our letters composed of pure thought, and it only appears like writing in our minds? However it's possible, in this place, at this time, we transcend the laws of physics.
Time is all mixed up and backward. Are you replying to my letters, or is it the other way around? Before and after have lost meaning.
My entire body tingles as if static electricity has replaced my blood. I feel the microwave radiation left over from the big bang, the essence of creation astronomers see when they peer toward the edge of everything. We're wading through creation’s wake, a warm lapis lazuli ocean surrounding us.
I wonder if the universe is made out of you and me. Are we the elements of everything yet to be? Did our love cause creation? Is the universe both that strange and that simple?
Our next leap is into the unknown of nonexistence. I have no regrets, my love. How many people witness the birth of the universe? But if I could have a last wish, it would be to kiss you before stepping into oblivion’s embrace.
If you enjoyed Love Letters, I think you’ll also like my story, Music Never Dies.
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