On Time

If I could reverse time, I would pick up the phone that night.

Amid the Sturm und Drang of a coat-closet-cum-Manhattan-restaurant, I am nestled into conversation with my husband and sister, the steam from the kitchen making soft vignettes of the windows.

I would put down my glass of Rioja and pick up my phone. I would swipe my finger across the screen as it vibrates expectantly in the palm of my hand, displaying her name, another flicker of light amid the tea candles dancing on every table. I would step outside into the spring evening and strain my voice above the brewing wind to say—hello?

That night at the restaurant I’m losing the sense of time—living in a moment I want to stretch for as long as possible—pulling at the ribbon of it like twisting pasta onto my fork.

“New York feels like home, now,” my sister says as she arranges her silverware.

“No more boyfriends in Iceland? Canada? Australia?

Her face puckers, making a little mountain of her mouth.

“For now.”

“It’s been wonderful to see more of you.”

“To get to have dinner a few times a week. I’ve always wanted to have a sister close to home,” my husband says.

I wag a finger at him: “Be careful what you wish for.”

Our laughter buoys above the clatter. A comfortable quiet settles in like a heavy blanket laid across our laps. My phone breaks the spell.

“It’s Mom calling, should I pick up?”

A little over a month ago, Mom suffered a heart attack. She’d tried to get up from bed in the middle of the night for the bathroom and collapsed. Too weak to raise herself up off the floor and too stubborn to worry anyone, she lay there for hours before calling a friend to retrieve her. The friend arrived and an ambulance followed. She was treated in a hospital and delivered to a rehabilitation center, while we all agonized over the next step in her care.

“If you want to,” my sister says.

“I’ll call her later, after dinner.”

“She’ll be happy to know we’re all together,” my husband responds.

“She will. I’ll tell her about it when I call her back a lil’ tipsy.”

In my mind, I rewind to this night often. I think of all the ways we manipulate time.

With movies as a guide, time travel is possible through a bevy of everyday objects; all of which imply if we employ enough ingenuity, we have the technology to do the impossible.

An incomplete list of everyday devices used for time travel in movies from 1981-2019:

A map

A car

A phone booth

A fax machine

A timepiece

A mailbox

A hot tub

A glove

In 2018, the same year I did not pick up the phone, there were 100,000 payphones left in the United States, 5,000 of which were in Manhattan. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure suggests that the next day after I didn’t pick up the phone I could have — given the right one — used an antenna to return myself in time to answer the call. I could have gotten in my car and after some modifications, gunned the engine to 88 MPH and left only flaming skid marks in my wake like in Back to the Future. I could have stolen a map and used it to trace my way back through the temporal cosmos, as a rag-tag band of misfits did in Time Bandits.

Mom’s seventy-five-year-old voice would cast from her bed in the rehabilitation center, through the airwaves from Boston to New York, warbling like a bird:

“I tried watching The Post again last night.”

“The newspaper movie with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep?”


“What did you think?”

“I didn’t finish it, it’s so boring.”


“I’m going to try again tomorrow,”


“I’m going to try and stay awake one more time. Maybe it gets interesting at the end.”

My mother and I had this conversation about her attempts to watch The Post many times during the month following her heart attack. Sometimes, I think about her being stuck in an endless loop of Oscar-fodder melancholy: she, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, all trying to get to an interesting ending.

Why use time-travel for such a short leap, though? With the glove on my hand or the timepiece hung around my neck, I could reclaim more than this one moment. I could return to toddlerdom and watch with wonder while my mother’s freckled hands work a mortar and pestle. The tendons in her tiny wrists would bulge as she crushes almonds and adds water to make almond milk for my cereal so that I don’t writhe in pain from the dairy milk sold at the grocery store. Or, I could reach for a moment I never knew, but always imagine: my mother, pressing a crisp sheet of white paper into the divots of her cable-knit sweater—the one with the lighthouse stitched into it—her heart-shaped face catching the afternoon light cascading through the kitchen window as she feebly shouts to my father in another room: “Gerry! He’s ours. Michael is ours.” I think of her nose wrinkling, her cheeks flush with enthusiasm, tears falling onto the letter confirming my adoption like gentle rain. But ultimately, this moment was not for me.

That call was for me.

As we leave the restaurant, a deluge smacks the awnings and asphalt, thwak thwak. My stomach is full of fettuccini tied into clutches of salt and seasoning. My husband and I wobble home arm-in-arm and tuck into the dark folds of our basement bedroom.

A few weeks before, I visited the rehabilitation center. My mother lay in bed, her sparrow’s frame crumpled up under thin white sheets. Though her hazel eyes were dulled with exhaustion, the wrinkles around her mouth smoothed frequently into a wide smile. Her hospital gown kept slipping off her slight shoulder and I adjusted it as we talked about everyday things: my job at IBM, my husband’s fundraising efforts, nights out in New York. Across the hall, in the common room, a young man led a group of elderly residents in a kind of geriatric prom. He played tracks from the 1940s and 50s and they bounced in place with their stiff, spindly arms keeping time, or shuffled their slippered feet back and forth across the checkered linoleum floor. For an hour they continued like this, time wound back to rosier days.

Back in our New York apartment, my phone vibrates against the hardwood floor beside the bed. I look down to see my brother’s name lighting up the display next to the time: 3 A.M.

I swipe the screen and hold the phone to my ear.

“She’s gone—,” he stammers. Wracking sobs eat the rest of the sentence.

“What?” I shout. “How, when?”

“An hour ago, another heart attack. She went in her sleep.”

A minute or an hour or a second goes by in silence. My husband is awake now, rubbing my back.

“My God—” my brother whispers. “We’re orphans now.”

I say, “I love you.”

I hang up and dissolve into bellows of my own, throw open the patio door and let the frigid night air bite at my wet face.

There’s a voicemail; a tiny time-capsule from my lost time in the restaurant.

I listen to this voicemail once a week for a month, then once a month, then every few months, then…echoes diminishing to whispers on wind.

I love you. I’ll call you tomorrow.

When friends see me in despair, they tell me time heals. What do we mean when we say that to someone wracked with grief?

When we see them struggling to find a face dissolving in addled memory, will the hours sharpen the image? When we walk in on them in their disheveled bedroom at 3 A.M. cursing into the sweltering air, revising conversations they can no longer have, will time give them back the words they’ve lost?

If time could heal, it would reverse.

We could get in the car, use the fax machine, don the glove, open the mailbox, jump in the hot tub. But this is not what time does. Time crawls, time marches, it flies like a bird.

If I could reverse time, I would pick up the phone that night. But I didn’t. I can’t go back in time. Neither can you.

If every setback could be undone, what substance would we have? Consequence draws the shape of our character.

The fact that time keeps marching towards its inevitable end means we must choose. Regret is the sting of knowing that every choice carries a thousand others; courage is choosing to spite it. I lived the immediate delights of a homely restaurant in good company while my mother let life go, alone.

She would be happy we were all together.

Photo via Pixabay

About the author

Michael Todd Cohen is a writer and producer living in New York and Connecticut. His work appears in Barren MagazineX-R-A-Y Literary MagazineHAD (a Hobart companion journal) and JMWW Journal, among others. You can follow him on Twitter at @mtoddcohen.

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