The Nature of Time
by Andrew Bertaina
I lived for a time in Spain, on one of those semesters abroad that turned into a year when I dropped out of school to pursue my dreams, those ineffable things that hang like mist over our lives. I was living then with a friend who denied the contiguous nature of time. Time, he claimed, was not liner but cyclical. Such that all things that had passed would come to pass again, Helen would launch the fleet of Troy with her face, Euripides would sit down and pen the tale of Antigone and Oedipus Rex, and William Hershel would stay up for hours grinding lenses to peer at the stars.
“Meaning what?” I asked him, one day while we sipped wine and watched flies bump lazily into the windows.
“Namely,” he said that all the works of the world will one day return again.
Such a view, naturally lead him to support theories of the apocalypse, a second ice age and a new world born again from the old, but with similarities so striking as to be a facsimile of the first.
And so, according to him, we had already had this same conversation in Madrid in some different iteration of the same world, where we watched the city bake in mid-summer light and talked about the nature of reality. Such a view also lead him to doubt the history books, geologic records, and history itself, which he said were all designed to promote the lie that time was linear.
The great exception that we could come up with was the book of Ecclesiastes: There is nothing new under the sun. There is nothing that can be said or done that has not been done before. In this book, without a doubt the best in the Bible as a whole, was the trace of the knowledge that wound its way like a bit of silver light through the crack of a window, tracking the real shape of time.
By mid-semester we were shirking off class to eat ham croquettes and sip coffee while discussing the nature of reality, which to him, was an illusion. Sometimes we’d swim, and I’d feel a preternatural clarity beneath the water, stroke after stroke, which affirmed the linearity of time and causality of motion. I’d want to remain in the pool forever, affirming with each stroke that life had meaning.
According to Martin, linear time was the root of many evils. He thought that the doctrine of free will was contingent upon linear time, and that led people to scurry about the world committing atrocities, believing that their time in the world was finite, and that each individual moment was special and meaningful, when in fact, it had all already happened. This temporal idea, he said, was a central idea of the Renaissance and patently false. “We are but images and recreations projected across the landscape of history time and time again.”
And though he was funny, often giving voice to the flies that buzzed round us and portraying great debates between the Sophists and Plato as though the flies themselves were the great orators, we were not able to spend much time in the company of other people because he was forever saying that he’d already had this particular conversation, of that he was almost certain, and so he was easily bored and quickly grew restless, often leaving the group to look out at a fountain or birds gathering in the street, and I felt compelled to follow. And so all discussion of politics, which were always in the air, or soccer left no impression on him at all, who was concerned, only and always with the nature of time, and therefore, with the return of Franco, the Inquisition, and Christ himself, who in returning would fulfill only a portion of his promise.
And though this made him an extremely difficult companion, he was also the most charming. For by denying time’s linearity he also denied its effects upon him, which meant that he took incredible risks, challenging professors and public intellectuals, jumping from thirty foot sea walls, approaching beautiful women at parties and asking them back to our shared room where he’d discuss time until he was bored. Since everything had already happened, he denied them as acts that had anything to do with him, rather, his actions were something distinct from him, he was, in his mind, in the process of very carefully following footprints in the sand.
Eventually the semester ended, both of us failing nearly every class but for one on the philosophy of Spinoza, who Martin respected, but who he also wished might return as slightly more like Voltaire in the next revolution of the earth. We had tired of Madrid, and Martin, whose father was extremely wealthy and well-connected, agreed to send Martin and I to Italy. By then my parents were sending frantic e-mails to me and to the Universidad, but I paid them no mind. Life occurs in moments, in fragments, to return home would have been to assume a shape to life that I no longer believed in.
I cannot inhabit that period of time in my life without a certain nostalgia for the fog that lay on my brain. Though Martin said that everything had happened before, my experience was the exact opposite. For a brief time, I knew nothing of routine and familiar places and lived at the very edge of life, each morning, cup of coffee or city square a surprise, a gift. To live that way, or so I think now, is perhaps the only way to live well.
We travelled to the hill country of Italy for our holiday. We stayed with an old friend of Martin’s father, this man, Pablo, owned a large vineyard that supplied much of the regions Chianti. The house was made of old brick and situated between the rolling hills—a kind of fantasy brought to life.
We stayed awake late the first two evenings, getting drunk with Pablo, who talked of nothing else but the vermin who were trying to eat his precious grapes. It was hard to move him on to any other topic. Everything reminded him of the grapes and the vermin trying to eat his grapes. We did not mind much as he supplied us with liberal amounts of alcohol and the evening often took on the shape of the wine, curling slightly at the edges, becoming hazy, such that his recollections and wild stabbings at imaginary vermin were the funniest things we had ever seen: this portly man, stabbing the air with tines of a fork as though he were a knight of the round table.
The third morning, we awoke in our small room, which faced east, to broad swaths of sunlight cloaking the grape vines that rolled away from us towards the next hill—a kind of wave of green and amber. The sky was dusted in faint clouds, and the brick walls were limned in gold.
Such a morning should be enough to wake anyone up to the possibilities of life. And yet, as we sipped on Prosecco and gazed out over the hills, his brow was furrowed and he sighed frequently. He said that he was unhappy, for he couldn’t be sure if his memory of this particular place was colored by his previous rough visit, years before, or whether the memory he was having trouble displacing was a prior iteration of time, which he said sometimes happened to him. And he couldn’t be sure if he was really here now, or whether he was remembering himself being here from a prior life. In either case, he said, it was time for us to go.
I couldn’t argue with him much since his father’s money was funding our trip. My parents had given up sending anything beyond pleas for me to return home and to rejoin the sensible life that I’d lived until that time. And so we went online and bought tickets for the train—a trip that would take us to the coast where we’d hike through small cities that hugged the coast by the ocean, which approximated infinitude with its capacity.
The air felt still but the small stems of flowers trembled on the hillside as we walked up the dirt road. Martin seemed happy enough that morning, laughing and joking as he imitated the old wine maker, stabbing the air himself, waging a war that was without parallel in the history of the world.
“He’s always been a bit foolish,” my friend said, “which is one of his charms. In some ways, there is nothing more charming in a man than lack of self-awareness.”
Whether or not he intended me in this remark was unclear, but I didn’t take it as such at the time. At the time, I was a bit in love with Martin. When we reached the station Martin insisted that we stand at the edge of the platform, away from the crowds and where we could feel the whoosh of the train before they’d come to a full stop.
The sky was like a cathedral, a row of clouds were blowing towards the green capped hills, and it smelled of wildflowers and honeysuckle. Martin was smoking and using his cigarette to imitate the owner of the vineyard, stabbing the sky for the mice that haunted the owner’s dreams. Nothing seemed amiss.
And then, as if he’d been preparing himself for it for ages, he stubbed out the cigarette, spun around and jumped across the tracks in front of a speeding train. His body was flung like a rag doll down onto the tracks, where he was slowly dragged before I could look away and could only hear the awful blaring of the train’s blaring horn.
The police arrived within an hour, and I was pointed out as the one who accompanied him to the station. After it was established that I hadn’t pushed him, I talked to the police of Martin, of his disposition, his thoughts on time and that particular day. None of the puzzle pieces fit together though beyond his understanding of time, which would mean nothing to the caribini, sweating in the warm afternoon sun, as we talked of my now dead friend. For he was gone now, and had achieved, in death, a final and complete silence of the thoughts that had driven him deeper and deeper into the spiralling catacombs of the human mind.
My parents were not well-off and it cost a great sum to fly me home from Tuscany, but they paid it. I didn’t get a job that summer, but I returned to school that next fall and after a few months I forgot most of the previous year. I got good grades, went out on long drives or to bars with my friends, thinking not of time, or Martin, but of the future, who I would date and marry, what would become of me in the uniform span of time allotted to us.
I live now with a wife and two children on the outskirts of Kansas City. On the weekends, I mow the lawn and admire the light sway of tulips in the garden, the way the blackberry vines turn towards the light. In my dreams, I often see him, floating across the blued space in front of the train, arms outstretched. In this image, I now see that it was he who was correct. For this dream and memory return to me again and again, such that I see myself trapped forever in the thick web of time, unable to escape that afternoon in Italy, as I am unable to escape anything in life, the voice of my wife, the slow plod an uninspiring job, the grasping hands of my children. And I see him instead, in that instant, embracing time, as I waste it away on dreams.
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Andrew Bertaina is currently living and working in Washington, DC where he obtained a MFA in creative writing from American University. His work has appeared in more than twenty publications including: The Three Penny Review, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, Literary Orphans,Whiskey Paper, Eclectica, Prick of the Spindle, Bayou Magazine, and Catamaran Literary Reader. He is currently a reader and book reviewer for Fiction Southeast.