Writing Fellow Sarah Braner did the unthinkable. What followed defies even the most abstract of logic. But it did happen.
My computer screen seemed to taunt me, the cursor on my Word doc flickering as if to say “Hello? Aren’t you going to write anything?”
Twelve hours, twelve hours until this essay was due. This stupid essay. Why had I chosen to write about this? The poem, In the Waiting Room by Elizabeth Bishop, made no sense. This class, “Postmodernism,” didn’t make any sense. I needed time. Just one more hour. “I have a writing conference slot open tomorrow…” I mused to myself. Perhaps that would be enough. I opened the Writing Center signup page, and I signed up for my own slot.
The computer started to shake on my desk, more violently with each passing second. The keys became too hot to touch and I could hear the fan whirring desperately before finally giving up the ghost. Light poured through a growing crack down the middle of the screen, making it almost impossible to look at what was happening. The entire computer split in twain, heat and light radiating from its innards until finally, with a sonic boom and shockwave that knocked me out of my chair, the light and heat converged into one spot in between the halves of its charred chassis.
I struggled back to the desk to examine the remains of what had just happened. Amidst the wires that had somehow managed to hold on, there was one floating black spot, about the size of a McBain shower fly. I could faintly see light shining around its circumference, but as my fingers brushed against the melted keyboard, my entire hand was yanked towards the halved screen. The dot seemed to grow until my arm was gone, shoulder gone, and then it finally swallowed my entire body.
The world was getting shorter but longer, brighter but darker, wider but thinner, louder and quieter. I heard voices all around me but as soon as I tried to focus on them, they vanished as quickly as they had manifested. I tumbled through the inky darkness, occasionally catching glimpses of what I could only assume was the world outside the dot. I saw a Fellow and a student during a writing conference, I saw a CC boy raise his hand in an intro philosophy class and the groan emanate through the students, I saw Prezbo peering out his office window, I saw a tour group gazing, awestruck, at Butler Library.
Visions started to swirl around me until I could no longer focus on one event. I saw the entire history of Columbia, I saw Milbank Hall in its resplendence before it became the most dreaded building on campus, I saw Low Library untouched and gleaming, I saw the Butler Banner adorn the edifice for the first time. Time stretched out before me like a serpent, its scales reflecting visions from my own life. Smoke wound around its body, around its fangs. It showed me writing my essay, it showed me in office hours, it showed my family cheering when I received my Barnard acceptance letter, it showed me in fifth grade challenging the star basketball player to a shootout, I saw my own birth and my mother’s loving gaze.
And I was falling,
towards its yawning maw.
I sat up with a start. The room around me seemed to be composed of pure, white light, and I couldn’t even tell how I wasn’t sinking through the floor. Gray smoke curled affectionately around my ankles, and with a bit of focusing, I could see more emanating from what appeared to be the ceiling. The smoke flitted and weaved in front of me until I could make out the misty figure of Pam Cobrin, director of the Writing Center. I struggled to my feet and addressed the figure in front of me. “What…the HELL just happened?”
“You broke your time.”
“You broke your time. You should know that it is a fundamental law that a Fellow can never sign up for their own hour. They did tell you, the consequences are dire.” I saw one of the scales of the time snake flash behind my eyes — I saw myself dozing off during a meeting as Professor Cobrin wrote on the chalkboard “Never, under ANY circumstances, sign up for your own hour!”
“I guess I missed that part. How do I go back?”
“Why did you sign up for your own hour?”
“I was,” I paused to think; after all, this was the person, corporeal or not, keeping me employed. “I needed time. I needed time to finish my essay. Can we get back to breaking time? How do I fix it? My essay is due in twelve hours!” The figure — Professor Cobrin? — motioned towards a space in the room. The smoke around my ankles darted over and formed a desk, two chairs, and a writing pad and pencil. We both had a seat.
“You say you needed time. Well, I suppose in a sense you have some now. You are currently in the stomach of the time serpent, though I prefer to go by Todd. I figured I should manifest myself in a way you would recognize. You see, there is plenty of time here. And no time. Some time travels through every so often, but it never makes it here. But we should have enough time.” While I struggled to parse out what was just said, Professor Cobrin — Todd? — began to write on the notepad, smoke streaming from the pencil. The writing stopped, and I could make out three words: “Focused,” “free,” and “write.”
“A focused free write,” I said. “I broke time and got swallowed by a time serpent just to be told I should do a focused free write?”
“You didn’t break all of time. Just your time. It’s just like a bone, you need time to heal your, well, time. And I told you my name.”
“Thank you, Todd, that makes so much sense. How do I get out of here?”
“Time alone can’t fix a broken bone. You need help. You asked for help, and while it came at a cost, you will get it. Now, tell me, why would I tell you to do a focused free write?” The ghostly figure seemed to solidify a little more, looking slightly more like Professor Cobrin.
“Well, I know I would advise a student to do a focused free write if they didn’t know what to write about. If they were, well, freaking out before a deadline because they didn’t think they had any ideas.” Todd passed me the pencil. “Right. So, take five minutes and see what you can come up with.”
“I thought you said there wasn’t any time here.”
“I also said there’s plenty of time here.” Smoke fell from the ceiling and collected on the desk in the form of a pocketwatch, ornate and beautiful. “Start.” So I did. I wrote as fast as I could, after all, the essay was due in what was hopefully still twelve hours. Then I felt myself slow down, like time was embracing me as a friend. I was four minutes in when I noticed the smoke was curled around my body, wrapped around my arms and writing hand. I finished with one word as the pocketwatch dinged merrily: “Time.”
“Good,” said the smiling face of Professor Cobrin. “What did you think of?”
“The main character in In the Waiting Room thinks she can transcend space, but she can’t transcend time. She is pulled back into the postmodern condition because the time isn’t right.”
The room started to tremble. Slowly at first, but speeding up quickly. Pam Cobrin’s ghostly figure continued to beam, even as the table evaporated right in front of us. “Time’s up,” she said. “I think you know what to do now.” I looked around the room, I looked down at the smoke falling from my fingers and arms. Panic started to fill in my stomach, but as my terror-stricken gaze met Professor Cobrin’s — Todd’s? — kind eyes, smoke lept through my lips and down my throat. The panicked feeling subsided, and I felt…ready. Before the room lost all integrity, the figure — whoever it was — said one last thing:
“Don’t forget, your timesheet is due tomorrow!”
The room vanished in a burst of light.
for a second,
And I was back in my chair. I was back at my desk. I was back in time. Even my computer bore no evidence of the trauma it had just endured. I opened a Word document, titled “Postmodernism essay – Time”. Then my elbow brushed through — then against — something hard.
My eyes fell upon a gold, ornate pocketwatch, with one tendril of smoke curling off its tip, before winding its way out the window and into the evening.
Time???? via Pxfuel