I stepped out of the 1983 Pontiac and took off my sunglasses and looked at the house. It was odd how obvious it was that I had come back in time. Say you return to your old house after thirty years—you’ll marvel at how much older it looks. How the trees and shrubs have grown. The changes the new owners have made.
But going to my childhood home 30 years in the past… All I saw were the things yet to come, how small the trees were, how fresh the paint. No basketball net. No garden. My brain sorted out immediately that I was seeing something yet in the making. It knew and found it all normal. So far.
My father hadn’t constructed the deck yet. I walked over asphalt to the front door and rang the doorbell.
After a moment my mother, aged thirty-three, answered the door. She blinked at me. “Can I help you?”
I smiled at her. “How beautiful you are.”
She frowned at me. “Who are you?”
“I am a nightmare from the future. Look at my face.”
She did. Then stepped back, jaw set, a hand slowly rising to cover her mouth.
“Think of this as a dream,” I told her. “It won’t happen again.” I smiled thinly. “And you won’t see this face again for twenty-six years.”
“Oh my god.” Trembling, recoiling.
“A dream, remember. Think of it as a dream. Sit if you like. I can get you water. I know where the cups are.”
We went into the kitchen and I made us both some tea. She sat on a metal-framed chair, staring at me, the tea going cold in her hand.
“Is he in his room?” I asked.
“You mean _____?”
I startled and almost dropped my mug when she spoke my name. She said, “Why didn’t you say ‘where am I?'” A hint of a smile now.
I hesitated, looking out the window into the backyard at the swing-set my father built. It’s gone now. “There’s not an etiquette for this,” I said finally. “I could call him ‘me’ if it helps you. But I don’t think it would be true.”
Her face darkened. “Wouldn’t it?”
There came a faint noise from the bedroom at the end of the hall. A clatter of materials and maybe the hint of a child’s voice, playing. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end, and an image from my childhood came to me: knees on the floor, hunched over a blue train, singing.
My mother stood and came over to me and tentatively laid a hand on my head. She tilted my head up to look into my face. I couldn’t look into her eyes for more than a moment.
“You’re so different. What is going to…” Seeing the sudden amused look in my eyes, she trailed off.
“Happen? What is going to happen?” I must have looked insane. “No. I came here for myself.”
“Are you going to see… him? Will that be ok?”
I stood and towered over her. She shrank back, a bit. “Yes,” I said. “In the cosmic sense, if that’s what you mean. There’s no mystic rule waiting to tear the world apart if I meet him.” As I turned away, she clutched my shoulder and stopped me. Some motherly instinct, sensing danger. Now, tears in her eyes.
“You needn’t worry that I’ll hurt him, that I’m a stranger. You can tell I am who I say I am, can’t you?”
“I know.” She nodded. “I know, but…”
I paused, feeling an ache in my chest. “But I am a stranger. In a way. Yes, I know. Of course.” I looked down the hallway. “That’s why I came.”
I touched the door and it swung slightly open. I cocked my head to peer through at the boy on the floor. In his flannel pyjamas, bare feet and tousled brown hair. He was focused on assembling two pieces of Lego, so much so that he didn’t look up at me.
“Lemonade!” my mother said from behind as she swung the door open fully and entered with a tray. The boy and I looked to her instinctively and as we did, I saw his face from the corner of my eye. Rattled, I turned back to him and for a moment stared at the face of myself as a boy.
I was here. I must have been. But I don’t remember ever having been that little perfect person.
Finally the boy looked at me. Not very interested in me; a solemn glance and no more. Then reaching for the sippy-cup of lemonade on the tray. Mom sat on the little single bed and watched us.
Slowly I sat on the floor. I still had my leather coat on. Felt self-conscious about that, and the faint smell of aftershave and the beer I’d had on the way to calm myself. I had less in common with myself than I’d imagined.
I had the sudden bizarre thought that I had come to the wrong house. This was so much unlike looking in a mirror. Instead of marvelling at how alike my younger self and I were, my brain was telling me with no hesitation that I was meeting some stranger’s child for the first time. I kept squinting and forcing myself to think ‘that’s you.’ That is YOU.
But I didn’t feel that. Not truly. I could understand it in an intellectual sense. But there was no feeling attached. Not at first. No kinship.
I said, “Even if you go back, you can’t go back.”
The boy squinted at me. “What’s your name?”
“My name is Lazarus.”
He looked back down at his toys. “You look like my daddy.”
“I’ve been hearing that since I was your age.”
“Was that a long time ago?”
I paused. “Not exactly.”
I took off my coat and set it aside, then lay back spread-eagle on the floor and looked at the ceiling. Only then did it begin to hit me. I saw on the ceiling the little glow-in-the-dark stars my parents had put there. I had forgotten about them. Then there were tears in my eyes and I covered my face with my hands. My body was shaking.
“Are you ok?” The boy was over me, peering down.
“No.” I let out a heavy sob.
I sat up and looked at him. How to explain twenty-six years of life? A culmination of both promise and despair. How to tell him the secret of all life: you will not do what you want to do, because you will not be who you want to be.
On his knees, he was just about as tall as me sitting up. Suddenly I reached and scooped him up by the armpits, standing up and holding him against me. So warm. Mom stood up in alarm.
But I went over to the bed and sat with the boy in my lap, cradled under my chin. “I just need a hug.” I closed my eyes and touched the boy’s hair.
“Forget about me,” I told them both. “Pretend I’m not going to happen.” I drew back and looked at the boy’s face. Confused, huge brown eyes. “I wish I was you,” I said around a lump in my throat. Everything I saw before me was something I had lost.
I lay back in the little bed and the boy came and cuddled up instinctively with his arms around me. I don’t know why, but nothing in my life has been as comforting as a hug from my seven-year old self.
Mom leaned over both of us and lay in the crook of my arm and put her head on my shoulder.
The boy was crying now too and she stroked the back of his neck with her fingers. I remembered her doing that to me. “Shhh… It’ll be ok,” she said to us both. For at least one of us, I knew, it was a lie.