Best Practices for Time Travel

By 
Doretta Lau

Doretta Lau is Room’s 2016 fiction contest judge. Who better than the judge herself to inspire you to get working on your contest entry? Read Lau's short story “Best Practices for Time Travel” below, from Room 38.3 "Trespass."

Don't forget! The fiction contest closes July 15.

I

“Time travel,” Ogun says, “is something I want to do, but like Louis C.K. says, if you’re black you can’t really go back in time further than 1980 without it sucking pretty badly.”

“So time travel is something you’ve thought about,” I say.

“Extensively,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about this since childhood.”

“You were alive before 1980, but I guess you were too young to know how terrible it was,” I say.

“It was only two weeks,” he says. “I was born mid-December.”

Annette says, “I once tried to explain to a white male friend from high school why it wasn’t possible for me to travel anywhere in the world and no matter how hard I tried, he just didn’t get it. He just could not accept that women don’t receive the same treatment as men. He didn’t understand that sometimes I’m afraid to walk down the street I live on when it’s dark out because some guy might rape and kill me. I didn’t even attempt to discuss the race factor.”

“If you had tried, he probably would have told you that he doesn’t see race,” I say.

“The thing is, he is literally colour blind,” Annette says. “His sister has an opposite condition—she’s a tetrachromat—so she can see many more hues than a regular person.”

There are four of us having dinner together: Ogun, Annette, Van, and me. We are at Ogun’s apartment in Vancouver. We are not drinking, which is why we can talk about race and gender without anyone getting butthurt.

A few days before I was lying on Ogun’s bed. He showed me papers belonging to his German grandmother: letters to the Nazi government and a Berlin U-Bahn map from 1938. One of the stops listed was Adolf Hitler Platz, which was called Reichskanzlerplatz when it was built earlier that century and again after the Second World War. In 1963, it was renamed Theodor-Heuss-Platz. Last year, by mistake, Google Maps reverted the square’s name to Adolf Hitler Platz; the error was corrected within a few hours. Representatives for Google still cannot explain how this happened.

Even with this U-Bahn map in hand, if the four of us landed in Berlin in 1938, we’d become lost.

II

I am sitting by myself in a cafe in Seoul, in a neighbourhood west of the palace. I do not drink coffee, but I can appreciate a good coffee shop for its ambience, by which I mean ample natural light and good music. The Grimes album Visions is playing at an unobtrusive volume; this makes me feel like I’m in my own apartment in Vancouver. The Blue House, the seat of South Korean presidential power, is a short walk away, and as a result, police officers in neon yellow jackets stroll back and forth on the outside pavement in a continuous fashion, alone and in pairs. Not one has stopped in for refreshments. It is snowing, but as I did not drive and I do not have dinner plans I am unconcerned. 

Just moments before, I was reading Javier Marías’s Dark Back of Time—the sequel to All Souls, one of my favourite Oxford novels—and encountered for the first time the word coprophagy—the eating of feces: 

It was rumoured that on one occasion, upon learning that a university in the United States was about to offer some succulently lucrative position to an ungrateful or insufficiently obsequious disciple of his, the tactic he came up with to keep this from happening was to accuse this disciple, sotto voce, of coprophagy, no less, which sufficed to make the moneyed Southern puritans cancel the nauseating contract, apparently without even wondering how Rylands could be in possession of such reliable information on practices and activities which, if they truly exist (and I doubt they do; these are figments and affectations of literature and cinema), would certainly never be spoken of openly by anyone, still less in the city of Oxford where almost nothing is overlooked and what isn’t known is created or invented.

If I am ever caught up in political intrigue, I shall denounce my enemies in this fashion: Oh him? You didn’t hear it from me but I have it on good authority that he practices coprophagy. A friend’s ex-boyfriend—who isn’t prone to hyperbole, this is important to note, but once told me I was the most racist person he’d ever met—recounted that he once took a shit at a fast-food restaurant along Granville Street in Vancouver. (There is a discount shoe store there now.) He stood, and right before he was about to flush, someone reached under the stall, grabbed a log of his poo from the toilet bowl, and ate it in a gulp.

III

“If you were to travel back in time, where would you want to go?” Van asks.

“I’ve been trying to determine whether it would be safe for me to visit Egypt while the pyramids were being built,” Ogun says. “Apparently it’s a myth that they used slave labour, so I think I’d like to go there.”

“I’d like to see dinosaurs,” Annette says.

“That doesn’t seem safe,” Van says. “You’d become a meal.”

“A prehistoric destination is probably safer than some parts of the world right now,” she says. “I’d rather take my chances with a brachiosaurus than with an ISIS zealot.”

“Are we playing Would you rather?” I ask.

“Would you rather deal with racism or sexism?” Van asks.

This question causes both Annette and I to pause.

“I’m not sure anyone can answer this one,” Annette says.

“If I really had to answer . . .  sexism,” I say. “For me, it hurts less to be called a stupid bitch than a stupid chink.”

The sound of a siren drifts up from the street. It is just distant enough that I don’t feel it vibrate in my chest.

“What if the technology was so good you could just beam in and out of time?” Ogun asks. “So that if a dinosaur came for you, you could beam to safety.”

“If time travel were that simple, it wouldn’t be safe for public use—it would be a military-grade weapon,” Van says.

“I wish we could just beam out of racism and sexism,” Annette says.

“That machine would be better than a time machine,” Ogun says.

“An empathy machine,” Van says.

We all look like we’re dreaming the best dream as we each imagine how an empathy machine would change our world.

Ogun makes a pot of tea.

“I’m not sure I’d want to go anywhere into the past because I’m afraid of causing a rift in the space-time continuum and erasing my own existence,” I say.

“Is that even a real thing?” Annette asks.

“I don’t know, but I’ve seen Back to the Future at least twenty times, and that’s my main primer on time travel,” I say. “My ideas aren’t based on science or anything like that. But what if I go back in time and step on a bug and it sets off a chain reaction that wipes all of us out and destroys the Earth?”

“You know, I don’t think you’re quite that powerful,” Van says, and we all laugh.

IV

Van and I are at a coffee shop in Toronto, talking about porn. He’s gay, but his primary fascination is with female stars. He reads about them, but that’s not really the same as watching them in action.

Mariah Carey’s Dreamlover is playing over the coffee shop’s speakers. 

“I was just reading about Alina Li,” I say. “She said in an interview she’d never ‘do interracial,’ even though she’s Asian and all her scenes are with white men. It’s creepy that interracial is a porn category meaning sex with black men. It’s creepy that Asian is a category. The next time someone tells me that racism doesn’t exist anymore, I’m going to point them to the narrative framework that presently exists in Western pornography.”

Van laughs and says, “Asa Akira published a memoir.”

“I saw her Reddit AMA about that,” I say. 

“I read that too. She has three definite boundaries: she won’t eat shit, fuck a child, or fuck an animal,” he says.

“I think those three things are no-go for most people.”

“But, Rule 34—if something exists, there is porn of it.”

“Sometimes I feel like such a second wave feminist when it comes to porn,” I say. “In theory, I’m like whatever. I mean, this generation of stars seems to have much more control over their careers. But if there are coprophagic child bestiality videos, I just can’t.”

“In the case of those sorts of videos, with the exception of shit-eating pedophiles who live for that kind of thing, we’re all second wave feminists.”

“You know, I don’t like the way Asa Akira does her eye makeup—like she’s a white girl, making it clear that the fantasy that’s unfolding on-screen is curated for a white male gaze—so I can’t watch her,” I say. “When I told my roommate about this, he told me I must not like sex. But porn is about aesthetics, fantasy, desire, and power as much as it is about watching people fuck and getting off on it.”

“Maybe you think too much when you’re watching porn,” Van says.

“That’s my new Tinder tag line: ‘I think too much while watching porn.’”

“Keep it simple. Make it: ‘I watch porn.’”

“I think ‘I watch sports’ is more attractive.”

“But that would be a lie.”

“I do watch sports documentaries though.”

“You do?”

“It comes in handy during Tinder dates.”

“You’re depressing me now.”

“Am I sadder than Grindr?”

“At least Grindr has dick pics.”

“Okay, let’s stick to porn,” I say. “I interviewed Annabel Chong, when she was the title holder of the World’s Biggest Gang Bang—actually maybe someone else had already topped her number by then. It was during the time the documentary about her was screening at film festivals.”

“What did you talk about?”

“I asked questions about her family and about feminism—” 

“No!”

“Because she was doing graduate work in gender studies.”

“Still.”

“Before the interview started, she took my list of questions and read them before I said anything,” I say. “We didn’t have much of a conversation. My friend Kate ended up talking to her for two hours and after that they kept up an e-mail correspondence for a few years.”

“What would you ask her now?”

“If I did it all over again, I’d probably ask her what kind of porn she likes to watch, or if she even watched porn before she shot her first scene. I wonder if she watches porn now.”

“Maybe she’s like one of those writers who don’t read,” he says.

V

Annette is serving us cupcakes that she baked. “I think my favourite stand-up comedy take on time travel is Aamer Rahman’s takedown of the idea of reverse racism,” she says.

“That’s the best,” I say. “A perfect three minutes highlighting that racism is structural rather than interpersonal, plus the joke involves a time machine.”

“Why are people so uncomfortable when the word racist comes up, as if accusing someone of being a racist is more of a crime than being the victim of actual racism?” Ogun asks.

“It’s you-smelt-it-you-dealt-it logic,” Van says.

“Don’t get me started on people who say things like you’re playing the race card when there’s a discussion about inequality,” I say. 

“You know people who say things like that?” Ogun asks.

“I read the comments on gymnastics blogs,” I say.

“Never read the comments!” Van and Annette say at the same time.

“Too late, I’ve already caught canceraids from reading comments,” I say.

“What if I told you I had the power to transport this entire apartment, with us in it, to another time and place?” Annette asks.

“We’re not going to enact Aamer Rahman’s script, are we?” I ask.

“Nah, that requires us to colonialize Europe,” Annette says. “I’m not into an eye for an eye. That’s way too Old Testament.”

“Are you going to take us to the Triassic period?” I ask.

“If we go too far back in time, this apartment won’t exist,” says Van. “How would we return?”

“Trust me,” Annette says.

VI

Belle and Sebastian’s The State I Am In is playing in the Seoul cafe and the sun has begun to set, turning the light outside grey. The snow has subsided. I am thinking about Marías again. The opening sentence of Dark Back of Time has been haunting me: 

I believe I’ve still never mistaken fiction for reality, though I have mixed them together more than once, as everyone does, not only novelists or writers but everyone who has recounted anything since the time we know began, and no one in that known time has done anything but tell and tell, or prepare and ponder a tale, or plot one.

Often I think about the line between fiction and non-fiction and all the ways in which we’re trying to tell stories in writing or film or art or music so we can communicate how we see the world to other people. In Dark Back of Time, Marías is playing with authorship and autobiography. By meshing the unreal and the real, he exposes fiction for what it is: an interpretation of the human condition that is rooted in specific experiences. We don’t necessarily write about what we know—words permit us to construct the grandest of characters and settings and narratives—but we write about what we know to be true. 

Once, at a photo shoot with a group of writers, I asked a man in his sixties about his work.

“I write poetry, essays, and fiction,” he said. “What about you?”

“I write fiction,” I said.

“What do you write about?” he asked.

“Life,” I said.

“So you write women’s fiction,” he said.

“No, I don’t,” I said. 

I wondered if it was pretentious to say that I wrote literary fiction

“Are all your main characters women?”

“No,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “I’ve been hearing about this thing called chick lit.”

“If I wrote chick lit, I might actually make money from writing,” I said with a laugh.

“Less than one percent of writers make their money from writing,” he said, as if he was speaking to a dim child.

I said goodbye and walked away.

Ten days ago I was riding in Lee’s car in Singapore, where it was so hot despite it being January that I was wearing summer clothes. Her sister had left Tigermilk and Jay Chou’s Still Fantasy in the CD player. Music is the closest I’ll ever come to time travel. Whenever I hear an old album, all the feelings and the technology employed to play that music come back to me. I have owned a record player, a tape deck, a Walkman, two CD players, a Discman, four iPods (they seem to malfunction after a year or two), an iPad, an iPhone, a mini disc recorder, and more than twenty pairs of headphones. These days, I listen to a lot of music on my laptop, which has terrible sound quality but it doesn’t matter to me because I’m not an audiophile.

Still Fantasy was released when I was living in New York. I listened to it on the stereo an ex-boyfriend had bought for me and tried to learn Mandarin by memorizing songs. My mother learned English this way, by reciting the lyrics to hits by Elvis and the Beatles. Through pop music, both of us have learned many metaphors to talk about love and loss and pain, but still we are silent about our feelings. Sometimes the only thing you have in common with another person is a language and even that tremendous advantage is not enough.

VII

The four of us are making a production of our possible time travel. I insist that we all use the bathroom before the journey. Ogun searches through a closet for a backpack and outdoor equipment. Van fills up our water bottles and wraps up the remaining cupcakes. Annette types out an action plan that details emergency rendezvous points and best practices. She fills five pages and prints a copy for each of us. I play Black Messiah on an iPad just in case we need music to help us find our way back home to the present day.

“The three of you are definitely on my apocalypse team,” I say.

As the men take care of the dishes and final preparations, Annette and I stand outside on the balcony for a moment. The light of the moon wavers on ocean water.

“Where are you taking us?” I ask.

“You’ll like where we’re going,” she says.

“Are we going to the future?”

“We’re always travelling forward in time.”

VIII

I liked that one stretch of Granville Street better when it was always closed to cars. Then, there were more sex shops advertising twenty-five cent peep shows and movie houses with Hollywood, foreign, and independent programs. I saw a Care Bears flick at the Capitol 6—that was the first time I remember seeing a film that was in English in a theatre. These are some of the other films I remember seeing somewhere in dark venues along Granville that no longer exist: Double Happiness (with my parents and brother); Ringu (I was afraid of my television for an entire week after seeing it); Crossroads (a miscommunication—I made a joke about Britney Spears, and my friend, who is now a movie producer, bought the tickets before I arrived); Teenage Hooker Became a Killing Machine (which is one of two movies I’ve walked out of partway through . . . I felt no need to achieve narrative closure); and even Cowboys and Aliens (why did we think it had the potential to be a sly post-colonial commentary on what we have done to Aboriginal communities across North America?). I have never once entered one of the sex shops, not even out of curiosity, but there is something reassuring about the one or two that still remain because they run counter to the glossy fiction that Vancouver is trying to present to the world that involves beaches, pristine ski slopes within driving distance, yoga, farm-to-table restaurants, and crowded nightclubs housed in former movie theatres.

Is this nostalgia I am feeling? Am I being sentimental?

“We dismiss sentimentality in order to construct ourselves as arbiters of artistry and subtlety, so sensitive we don’t need the same crude quantities of feeling—those blunt surfaces, baggy corpses,” writes Leslie Jamison in the essay “In Defense of Saccharin(e).” In the months before I read this sentence, I had been thinking about why I felt an accusation of sentimentality was so galling. I wondered, what is so wrong with expressing emotion in art?

I find myself in a Catch-22. If I betray too little feeling, then I am nothing more than an Asian. If I exude too much feeling, then I am nothing more than a woman.

IX

The four of us are standing by the door with our coats and shoes on. 

“We’re there,” Annette says. 

“How do you know we’re there?” Van asks.

“I feel it,” she says.

I don’t feel any different. Everything in the room looks the same—except the view from the window may have changed. Or am I imagining that? Has the apartment transited space and time? 

“Where are we?” Van asks. He walks to the window. “I can’t see anything.”

“We can see for ourselves if we leave the apartment,” Ogun says as he picks up one of the backpacks.

“Is that a good idea?” Van asks.

“You trust me, don’t you?” Annette asks.

I have many questions, too: What’s outside? Is a dinosaur about to tear me apart? 

I try to take in even breaths. I can’t let fear stop me from discovery.

“Ready?” I ask, peering at their faces. Van looks nervous. Annette is calm, while Ogun is excited.

Everyone, including Van, nods.

I open the door and cross the threshold.

Doretta Lau’s short story collection, How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? (Nightwood Editions, 2014), was shortlisted for the City of Vancouver Book Award, and was named by The Atlantic as one of the best books of 2014. In 2013, she was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust of Canada / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize.

Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Day One, Event, Grain Magazine, Prairie Fire, PRISM International, Ricepaper, subTerrain, and Zen Monster. She is also a journalist who covers arts and culture for Artforum International, South China Morning Post, The Wall Street Journal Asia, and LEAP. She completed an MFA in Writing at Columbia University.

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