Jan/Feb 2019  •   Fiction

Being and Time

by Andrew Bertaina

Image salvaged from public domain

The differences between God and man are as manifold as man's wickedness. One can make a cup of His hand and swing it through the dark ink of the sky as if it were water, disturbing the constellations, scattering Ursa Major, or pulling comets by their tails across the Milky Way. The other can only gaze up at the stars on a clear night and ponder in that silence all the space between things, the way stars sometimes brighten and then go dark. There are so many differences, I could write as long as the universe spins out galaxies, the variety of O's: omnipotent, omniscient, etc., but the difference relevant to my own story is that God lives outside of time, flashing in and out of it like a sun-warmed bather by the pool.

Man, bound to time, is forever entangled in the world: in petty jealousies and toenail clippings; erecting of shelter; raising and shearing of sheep; finding and losing a wife or husband; connecting wires on a television; yelling at a neighbor; burning a dinner of salmon and rice; vaguely noting a distant war; smoking a cigarette on the porch while the wind blows softly through trees, emulating the ocean. God is capable of constructing a universe. Man can only create small things: a statue, a blueberry pie, an essay, a kitchen garden, a parking ticket. Meager offerings in the face of the cosmos.

In the early days not every rule had been carved onto stone tablets, which meant some of us who weren't quite defined lived outside of time. God hadn't thought through the logistics of everything yet. He was always more brass tacks, more tactical than strategic. We spent a great deal of time—oxymoronic, yes—playing chess. Chess can be interminably boring. However, unmoored from time, the game became a wonder. Once, while considering a move for one of my knights, I paused and looked at the dust motes floating over my water and then took a drink. When I looked beyond the board to the world, I saw dinosaurs were now extinct, a continent had broken free from its shelf, and small animals were scurrying between caves. I looked at my opponent, but He hadn't noticed a thing, engrossed as He was in Alekhine's gun. God was, for all intents and purposes, a dismal chess player.

I realize my description of God and time doesn't really make sense to a person in your present state: situated in time; reading on a couch with a computer warm in your lap; or scrolling on a phone; or watching a movie; or standing at the sink, gazing dully at the dishes. Or at least I'm not very good at it. Describing it to you accurately would be akin to teaching your dog to read from the Vulgate in perfect Latin. Dogs are notoriously dismal at Latin.

During those later days—if later is what they were—when we'd stopped playing chess, we'd watch people moving through the world, out of what would now be called Africa and into the great unknown, though we had a pretty good idea of the geography. Perspective is everything, and we could already see they'd eventually cover the earth. Down below, the people moved as quickly as a shaft of light through stained glass. And yet, at some moments, we would sit and contemplate every pore on someone's skin; a birthmark on their right elbow in the shape of the Adriatic; a crow's foot; the slight fold of skin on their knuckles as they reached towards a pear, breaking a small spider's web with their left forefinger.

But the watching began to change the way I related to the people below, who before had been abstractions like shadows thrown upon a wall. Now I could see a bit of what He saw in them: their fragility, the way their bones broke, and the way they cried so often when they were alone—such tenderness, such love. We didn't have the equivalent, nothing of the feeling of loss accompanying their lives. None of us had ever stood in the backyard and buried our new child. There were no children among us, we people of the sky. I could see the piercing beauty of sheaths of corn blowing in a steady wind, the sky overhead electric blue. I believe this time of close observation is what led me into disaster, if loving an ephemeral thing is a disaster, and I now believe it to be. How much easier it is to love the divine, the unchanged and unchangeable. Humans wriggle around like snakes.

I don't remember the precise year I fell in love. The women were wearing short skirts then and dainty shoes. They were taken to dancing in groups late at night, shaking their hips as if they were tribal women in the early days, trying to keep warm. The woman I fell in love with, a whipsmart divorcee of 32, was eating frozen blueberries on a blanket by the river, watching the underside of leaves reflecting geometries of light. I don't know if she was thinking then of her children or her ex-husband or nothing at all, but I could see in the pensive look, the slight mark between her eyebrows, something in need of love. Or perhaps it was I in need of love, run dry like a desert culvert after all those years in the sky. I tucked my terrible wings inside a suitcoat and started talking fast about tax law and my dreams of the sky, of the songs of certain birds and the color of the top of rainbows. It took me a while to get the hang of how to speak to someone ensconced in time, mired in the muck of day-to-day life.

In the beginning, we spoke often of our hopes and dreams, which centered on the dividends from her 401K and the ability of her children to get scholarships to four-year colleges or maybe spend a year or two at the local junior college and then transfer elsewhere. It concerned her I didn't have a job, and she pestered me frequently about my working resume and the long gap between employments. Those were halcyon days, just after we'd met, when I tethered myself to her and felt as if I finally existed as a part of time.

It felt as though this time could last forever. I found everything she did enchanting, the way she sometimes spat water when she laughed, her small vanities, her inability to cook a roast without burning it, her love of roses.

Our happiness could not, as I'm sure you've already guessed, last. We had a logistical problem: the fundamentally different way we experienced time. Sometimes she'd asked me to meet her at the Italian restaurant on Thursday night at seven, and I'd want to oblige her. And yet, as soon as I left her, I'd lose track of things and end up arriving days early or late. And I'd show up at the restaurant and listen to the songbirds in the trees or the pawing of the rain on the rooftop, growing angrier at her, until I checked my phone and figured out it was I who'd made the mistake. And so when we finally did meet, we'd haggle over minor things like whether we wanted the duck confit or the braised veal, each of us assuming the other was in some way choosing the dish not out of a desire for it, but as a means of punishing the other.

Our further undoing was our relationship coinciding with Gabriel reminding us of the good old days, before we had humans to watch, when we'd play chess. And I felt within myself a quiet stirring, like wind upon a room full of dust, a longing for the game when we'd yell, "Rook 8 to Pawn 2." We were inveterate jokesters when it came to chess and meant nothing by our yelling as we barely understood the pieces, which sometimes disintegrated in the long stretch of time between our moves, until we wound up moving bits of dust with our fingernails across the oak board, breathing softly, quietly, in an attempt to not lose everything.

Unfortunately, now engrossed in these games, I sometimes wouldn't check on her for a week or two. And when I finally did, she pointed out my absences made her feel vulnerable and self-conscious and reminded her of her ex-husband, who was a bit of a layabout. And didn't I know she had kids? She counted on me to show up because she had to arrange baby sitters for these nights out with explicit directions for how and when to serve meals, this at the end of a long week that had already left her feeling ragged and in need of a good scream. And then when I didn't show up, it made her question what she was up to, working long hours, making sure the children had vegetables with every meal, were clean and well-adjusted, if only to carve out two hours in her life to meet with someone who didn't give a damn about her. That she was right was insufficient. I could not tie myself to her or the children. Such a thing was not allowed.

We spent a day I remember in the Green Mountains of Vermont. We walked through a field where the blue bells, clovers, and dandelions covered the hillside like a quilt. The sky suddenly darkened, voluminous clouds appeared, and we hid beneath the eaves of a large pine while hail stones fell around us like the wrath of God. Later the sun appeared, and we finished our hike to a waterfall. We read passages to one another from Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, sitting on a blanket, the spray of the falls nearly reaching our faces, falling down on the rocks, creating rainbows in the air. A pair of black swifts harvested insects, dark blurs against the paler bruise of the sky. She lay back in my arms, her hair smelling of apples. She said she wished the moment could last forever. And I became aware suddenly of time—time washing over me, filling me, every crevice, in my nose and eyes, pouring out of me like sand from a glass. And I saw that time could consume me. Or I thought I did, for suddenly that afternoon flowed away like leaves in autumn wind, her children grew up and left her, and I disappeared for a decade by accident, and she was soon dead. Perhaps I understood nothing.

Here is what she could have meant by time: something you can scoop into your hands, like God with a sky full of stars, or a child with fine grains of sand. Time is like a shark, either moving or dead. Time is the soft feeling on the inside of her palm, my finger running along a spidery blue vein, tracing it back toward the heart along a hand suddenly covered in wrinkles. Time is that which does not stop.

Long after the stars have stopped their idle burning and turned to dust, I'll be sitting in an ever darkening room, watching time lap at the window like water on a shore. In the mornings, I'll think of her, the crow's feet on her eyes, the steel grey of her hair, her slender fingers. This woman, dead now for a week, a day, a millennium.

I was just telling God the other day how I don't understand time, and God pointed out when it comes to brass tacks, I don't really understand much of anything. God said time was like a mustard seed, like the birds of the field, and then God trailed off and looked for a long time at the universe in a deep well of silence.

Perhaps it's blasphemy to say, but I hope when the universe is ripped to shreds, that I go with it.

God and I are playing chess. We're using the stars as pawns, moons as rooks, planets as knights, suns as bishops, and galaxies as kings and queens. Sometimes I look away in my reverie, and I swear God has moved another piece across the vast black space of sky, cheating once again, while I ponder my next move.