For one second, I feel normal, as I lean my head back into a porcelain sink with a curve hollowed out for my neck. Warm water soaks my hair. My stylist’s hands are as strong as ever, scrubbing my scalp with lather I can’t see but can feel tingling with tea-tree oil. I’m sometime in the past. I’m getting a haircut. Then the customers around me explode into laughter at a story with a punch line I didn’t catch. Back in 2020, I’m stunned by how melodious laughter can sound when it’s not a garbled mess, glitching out on my low-connectivity Zoom call.
For one minute, everything feels fine, as I stare at a fat lemon—bright, bumpy, and spotless. Perched on the top of the stack, it begs me to take it home. Its insides want to be squeezed and whipped into something, anything—a custard, a pasta sauce. Its rind wants to be zested into a beautiful curl. I’m planning a meal. Then my hand moves to the roll of thin plastic bags and freezes. I can’t open those things while masked. Back in 2020, I put the lemon on the child’s seat of my shopping cart and spend ten minutes at home scrubbing it.
For one whole night, I sleep deeply. I dream about something that awakens me with laughter, the sound in my ears and my lips in motion. I decide to try to hold on to this feeling—arms and legs still heavy with the lingering relaxation. I’m setting an intention. Then I inhale deeply and notice it immediately. It’s not so much a smell but more that the air itself is too dry, unnatural. Back in 2020, I check my phone and the Air Quality Index confirms: unhealthy.
For five minutes, I chat with Sammy, who owns a bodega in my neighborhood. I primarily buy wine there. As always, Sammy pretends to need to see my I.D. and we talk about nothing other than how young we both look. I leave smiling, the bottles clanging in my bag. Then I reach the storefront two doors down. The space has been transformed: although it previously offered comfy-chic clothes and fancy candles, it’s now a vacant rental, a gaping hole. Back in 2020, I try and fail to remember the name of the woman who ran it.
For a half hour, I look at Halloween decorations. Several houses fail to scare me with their skeletons reaching out from flower beds. Some manage to startle me with a witch’s cackle or a thunderclap as I walk past. But I actually jump as I round the block and an enormous Frankenstein’s monster appears. A brilliant trick, the angle of two trees hides him from view until he’s instantly, alarmingly close. I step back to admire this house on the corner. Along with the monster, ghosts sway from branches, six jack-o’-lanterns flicker, a black cat sits in one window and, back in 2020, a somehow-not-rhetorical Black Lives Matter sign rests in another.
For two hours, I eat at a restaurant. My small table is nestled against the building, and I have a view of the park, where people are unloading food from thick canvas bags and spreading it out across blankets. They take their time and swipe their fingers through the dewy grass as they picnic. All around me, I can see people’s mouths curve, can observe their crooked teeth, can see their noses crinkle. Looking sadly at my empty plate, I dip my pinky into some remaining sauce and put it to my mouth. Back in 2020, it tastes rich and peppery, with just a hint of hand sanitizer.
For thirty seconds, I squint at my screen, at an e-mail from Corporate reminding employees of both our year-end goals and the upcoming expiration of our vacation time. My Slack explodes with messages from co-workers quoting lines from the e-mail. Reflexively, I rise, as though to meander over to someone else’s desk to talk about it. But, back in 2020, I’m alone in my living room, not a water cooler in sight.
For one evening, I stand in a line so long and so energized that I forget what it’s for. It does not feel like a toilet-paper line, but like a line from before—a line for tickets, for chocolate-almond croissants, for a concert. Free pizza makes its way around. This is a line for a time machine. Everything now is a time machine—be it a lemon or a haircut—but, trust me, those only work for a second or so. This one, I am told, could work for four years. So we wait to feel normal.