A TIME TRAVELER WALKS INTO A BAR • by Joel Fishbane

In a few minutes, a guy who looks like a younger version of me is going to ask you out. He’s right over there, shooting pool with his friends, and he’s about to remark that he likes your crooked smile. They’ll bet him fifty bucks that he doesn’t have the balls to approach. He’ll prove them wrong but you’re going to give him the line you give to all the men who hit on you: go home, get sober, and, if he still wants to ask you out, return in a week. Usually, the men go home, get sober, and disappear; this one will go home, get sober, and come back. He’ll be so endearing that you’ll agree to coffee the following day.

Coffee will become lunch and lunch will become dinner at this Indian place he takes all his dates to. It’s a great restaurant but the real reason he likes it is that it’s close to his apartment, making it reasonable to invite you home for a “drink”. You’ll see through the charade but you’ll agree, because, let’s face it, you’ve been having a dry spell and he’s not bad to look at and since he’s a writer and you’re an English major, you have lots to discuss. At his apartment, you’ll tell him that he lives in the sort of apartment writers write about writing in. You’ll be impressed by a library that includes more than just perennial classics and book-of-the-month-club selections. This guy’s collection is a deep dive into the lesser novels of the greats, the sort of books your teachers never let you write essays on, but you could talk about for hours. And he’ll want you to — you’ll spend an hour explaining why The Beautiful and Damned is better than The Great Gatsby and you’ll be so lost in the pleasure of the conversation that you’ll forget you came up there to be kissed.

The next month will be full of hope and you’ll talk about things you’ve never talked about with anyone, like your parents’ divorce and your love of kayaking and how you’re saving money to fix your teeth. You’ll discuss books and he’ll teach you euchre and how to cook and you’ll instruct him in the art of paying attention in bed because you vowed early never to fake it for anyone and you’re not going to start with him. You’ll tell him how Fitzgerald stole from his wife’s diaries and make him swear to never do that to anyone and you’ll imagine a future where you’re his editor and agent, the powerhouse who runs his career, a woman whose BA in English actually proves to have some use, someone who is more than just a bartender who is ignored by the world, disregarded by everyone, no, you’ll be vital, a real somebody, a woman who is idolized, adored, and isn’t ever afraid to answer her mother’s calls.

Of course, right as you’re imagining this future, he’ll become distant. You’ll try different things but you’ll sense what’s coming and, sure enough it ends. He’ll say he’s just not “feeling it” and while he won’t be cruel, it’ll still hurt and you’ll walk away trying not to cry so you can pretend that you weren’t as optimistic as you were. You won’t see him again but, in a few years, he’s going to send you a Friend Request. It will take you a week to accept.

What you won’t know is that he’ll be lying when he ends it. It’s not that he isn’t “feeling it”; it’s that he’s “feeling it” too much. He’s just getting out of a messy relationship and has been avoiding the emotional fallout and his friends are encouraging him to “play the field” and he thinks this sounds like a good idea because he’s not very good at picking friends. You won’t know that he’ll think of you when he plays euchre or cooks or how he’ll remember you, years later, when he reads a woman’s diary and makes the conscious choice not to steal her words for himself. This decision, provoked by the memory of a vow made so long ago, will be what prompts him to send you that Friend Request. After, he’ll look at your pictures on Facebook — your son, that awards banquet, the kayaking trip down the river — and notice you fixed the smile and he will think how, maybe, if things had been different, he would have been around to tell you to save your money and not fix something that was perfect the way it was.

Me telling you this can’t change things because time is a fixed construct and, given that you’ll soon have awards and a son and a kayak, you’re probably glad, but I’m telling you so you’ll know the truth because, someday, that guy over there is going to write about you and not use your name and hide behind pretentious literary tricks, like writing in second person and using the future tense, and I want to make sure that when you read the piece, if you read it, that you’ll know the story is all about you.


Joel Fishbane’s novel The Thunder of Giants is now available from St. Martin’s Press. His short fiction has been published in a variety of magazines, most recently Ploughshares, West Trade Review, and Joyland.


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