time freezes for gina park
BY CAITLIN FITZPATRICK
At first she thought it was the record player, skipping.
The second time it happened, she was at work. The young intern in her office was moving his fingers through her files, no purpose. Shush, shush, shush went his small thumbs (she noticed often how small his thumbs were, how they seemed to belong on his feet and not his hands). For a small skip, there was no sound, and when she looked up the boy was not moving. In the hall, a clerk was frozen with coffee spilled halfway down his shirt. Gina spent another moment admiring (maybe questioning) her intern’s truncated thumbs, the curve of his ear, the hollow at the base of his neck. Then, the frame began to move again. He looked up and caught her staring.
Sometimes she was gripped by the strangest fears. She would look out her window on a Sunday morning and see no cars, press her ears to her apartment wall and hear no voices and then, instantly, she would decided that she was the only human left alive. She’d wrap her robe around her shoulders, open the door and sit on her front steps and wait, counting people as they passed by, confirming there were other breathing beings left in the world.
Every afternoon Gina ran exactly five point five miles on the treadmill. She was not quick; the entire affair usually took an hour and a half. She liked to take her time with things, liked the soothing shuck shuck shuck of the black belt beneath her feet. Recently, though, the sound of the machine made her sweat. Every so often, her foot would lift and seem to hit a completely still belt. She wouldn’t fall, wouldn’t even stutter, but she was aware that there was something off in the rhythm. She pushed through the fear; she needed this hour in her afternoons. Sometimes, running on the treadmill, she would have great epiphanies. About once a week she would announce to herself, dramatically, that she was too intelligent to fall in love. She’d said this once to her best friend, Amy, with a mournful tone, but truthfully she was pleased with this realization about herself, believed it made her superior to every other lonely person she knew. She often recited it to herself, poignantly, keeping time with her steps: I’m too intelligent for love, too intelligent, too intelligent for love.
She was at the electronic store, holding her record player up to the man behind the counter. She told him the thing kept jamming up, pausing, freezing for five seconds at first, now easily fifteen. He kept the machine overnight and called her in the morning. Nothing was wrong, he said. Was she sure the record she’d been playing wasn’t scratched?
Her intern’s name was Derek, a spectacularly chiseled name. He looked exactly like the kind of boy she’d mooned after in her younger years: short black hair, dark stubble around the jaw, shoulders wide enough to lift even a girl her size. Every so often, typing out an email or lifting a post-it note, he paused, quick as a tremor. She liked him best in these moments, imagined holding his wrist in her palm, quieting it like a trembling bird.
At sixteen, to please a boy like him, Gina tried to learn to play guitar. She bought books on reading music, spent all her money on new strings. She picked up a few chords—G, C, D—but she could master little else. Her fingers were too small. They exhausted easily from pressing down the metal spines of the strings. Still, she feigned improvement, rubbed her fingers silently up and down the instrument to sand calluses into her skin. She made it a point to touch the boy on the bare skin of his shoulder each afternoon.
Derek’s calluses were across the pads of his hands instead of his fingers, rubbed raw by the oars he gripped each afternoon rowing for the local crew team. They raced in regattas every other Sunday and every Friday before he invited Gina to come watch him. Every Friday she turned him down and spent her Sunday instead ticking out time on the treadmill, unraveling the mysteries of herself.
Most evenings she texted her best friend Amy and they went out to bars, walked along hilly sidewalks, ate tacos while sitting on each other’s front stoops. Sometimes they discussed the intern—The Beautiful Intern Dilemma they called it—but usually they talked about Amy’s fiancé, Justin, who had cheated on her. She’d forgiven him, but couldn’t quite seem to commit to the forgiveness. Evenings now alternating between weepy and self-assured. Her sentences always started the same way. “The worst thing about it all…” she would say, until Gina became convinced that every part of it was the worst thing, that there was no fraction of Amy that actually loved her fiancé anymore, she only loved the person she got to be when speaking about his betrayal.
Every Thursday, after work, Gina drove twenty miles out of the city to visit her mother. Gina and her mother played board games on the living room floor. Her mother’s favorite game was Nuclear: the game of post-apocalyptic survival. Points were earned by collecting various tools (Geiger counters, grappling hooks, lead bullets) and lost by contracting a variety of diseases (dysentery, cancer, post-apocalyptic depression). Gina had played board games with her mother for as long as she’d been alive: complex, multi-layer games involving weeklong strategies that had left her socially stunted. Gina approached relationships with the same calculated finesse of a board game. Each milestone came with a corresponding point value. Meet the parents: plus five points. Forget a birthday: minus three points & lose a turn.
Over the years Gina had tried to explain to several therapists that the board games were responsible for the mathematical way she approached all her relationships, but none of them agreed. They place the blame, instead, on Gina’s older sister, who’d died before she was a week old. Dumbed by their grief, Gina’s parents had conceived another child again, instantly. Gina had never admitted this to any of her therapists, but she was sometimes jealous of her sister, sometimes thought about how much easier life could have been if she were just an idea of a thing, an impression of her parents’ affection. The dead daughter gave them a hope that Gina never could; when her mother, now old and sick, imagined dying, she knew it was the unnamed sister’s face she fantasized about moving towards.
That night, Gina accrued the grappling hook, the Geiger counter, and the prophet’s chalice, which gave her the ability to lead a cult of followers to the Promised Land. It was a landslide win, and Gina celebrated by brewing them each a cup of coffee and sitting across from her mother like they were old friends.
“I’ve been having a problem with some bugs in my office,” her mother said. “Is there any chance you might know someone who could help?”
“An exterminator? I can look one up tomorrow.”
She picked up a pen and dug through her mother’s drawers, searching for a notepad to write herself a reminder. Inside her mother’s drawers were old mementos, the hospital bracelet from around her sister’s wrist, the small pink cap an aunt had knitted, silver spoons embossed with her would-be initials. Gina shut the drawer and wrote the note on her palm.
“I think I might be too intelligent to fall in love,” Gina announced to Amy, feigning a mournful tone.
“Don’t be stupid, Gina.” Amy looked down at her phone. When they weren’t talking about Justin, Gina noticed that Amy rarely looked her in the eyes. She was beginning to worry that the two of them weren’t really actually friends anymore, that she had just turned into a human sounding board for Amy’s fears about her fiancé. She didn’t want to hear about Gina’s work, or Gina’s philosophies. Occasionally, they might talk about The Beautiful Intern Dilemma, but even that had to occur a certain way. Amy didn’t want to stray far from the desire of the whole ordeal. She didn’t like, for example, when Gina discussed the delicate way Derek blew on his tea.
“If you’re going to seduce an intern,” she said, “it’s not for romance. It’s for sex. That’s what all the men are doing, anyway.” She brought her hands up to the air and clenched them into fists. Gina knew what was coming next. “The worst part of it all,” Amy said, “is that now my sister isn’t speaking to me anymore. She thinks I was stupid to take him back; she’s trying to get me to leave him by asking me to choose between the two.”
“You don’t even like your sister,” Gina said.
At the gym, the treadmill froze beneath Gina’s feet. She hit the still machine at a run and kept moving, ribs colliding with the speed controls and knocking her onto her back. She looked up at the ceiling for a moment, stunned. When she stood back up, nothing around her was moving. A man was frozen mid bench-press; a woman was caught admiring her own ass in the mirror. Gina stood up and stepped off her machine, reached towards a custodian, hand lifted to spray down an elliptical. Time started again.
She wondered if she should bring up the problem with Amy, but couldn’t quite figure out how to start the conversation.
“Amy,” she might say, “I think time is starting to freeze around me.”
Or: “Amy, I think I’m living in an alternate temporal plane.”
But instead she listened to Amy list off her regrets.
“The worst part of it all,” Amy said, “is that I can’t feel sexy anymore.”
The two of them were walking through the lingerie section of Khols. Gina nodded. She lifted a completely sheer bra over her head. Where the nipples would sit, small blue ribbons were knotted in an artful bow.
“Is today supposed to fix that?”
“Yes,” Amy said, although she was too anxious to ask an attendant for help, asked Gina instead to measure out her band size, to slip her fingers under the straps and adjust the height of the cups. She blushed when Gina swapped out her cotton bras for lace, when she returned with a matching, crotchless panty.
“I knew you would be good at this.”
Gina tried not to think too hard about what that could mean. Amy poked her fingers through the hole in the panties; she waved at Gina through the vacant crotch and laughed. Gina did not feel confident about the outlook of her adventurous sex tryst. As they were standing in line, Amy kept shifting the underwear beneath her crossed arms, so the mothers shopping for their daughters’ first bras couldn’t see her.
When they were almost at the counter it happened again. Gina looked at all the motionless bodies around her and thought of every wicked thing she could do: peep on someone’s dressing room, snag a 200 dollar corset for free. Instead, she reached into Amy’s purse and opened her phone. There was a new text from Justin: Out with Gina again? Doesn’t she have any other friends?
The exterminator worked wonders on her mother’s home; when Gina arrived for their weekly game date she could see tall piles of ant bodies in each corner. But when they finished their game and she looked for them again, the bodies had vanished.
“Did you see that?” she asked her mother.
“Oh yes,” her mother said, calm. “Ants never leave their dead behind; they carry them back to their hill. To grieve.”
On Wednesday, she drove out to the lake and watched as eight boys, Derek among them, rowed up and down their lanes. At the prow of the boat a small boy grabbed his knees and held no oar. He shouted at the rest of them, telling them when to stroke. Derek sat directly across from him, and Gina watched how close the two of their faces often drew—the small boy screaming, Derek driving his oar into the black water. Sometimes they kicked the tempo up and other times they moved at a lazy crawl. On their final lap, they began to sing. If I get home before daylight, might just get some sleep tonight. And then everything stopped, boys with their mouths open, arms stretched out over their knees—frozen. Their oars like half-suspended knives slicing into the water’s dark, ridged spine.
Gina was still running on the treadmill, even though the machine regularly stuttered beneath her feet. Each time she lifted her foot she considered how she might topple forward onto her face, how the equipment belt might scrape a meshed scar onto her cheek. It wasn’t good for setting the sedate pace she enjoyed; she’d begun running seven-minute miles. But she didn’t know what else to do. She couldn’t run outside because she was too aware of others watching her, couldn’t run on a track because she hated the sensation of being out-paced by anyone. She couldn’t stop running, of course, because she believed she was fat, and that the cessation of exercise would transform her thighs from ‘sensually wide’ to ‘profoundly floppy.’ She didn’t think deep thoughts about how she was too clever for affection anymore. Instead, she thought only of how quickly this small thing moving beneath her feet could topple her. Each step she said to herself, now it will happen, now, now, now.
In her mother’s drawers, Gina found no mementos of her own childhood. A thorough search of Amy’s phone revealed months of texts complaining about Gina’s neediness. She discovered subscriptions to three different gay porn sites in Derek’s email. Once, she peeked over her therapist’s shoulder and saw her writing, but all the notes were written in illegible shorthand.
Amy married Justin. Derek graduated from college and moved to another city, got a real job, probably a real boyfriend, too. Gina’s mother was diagnosed with lymphoma, but she didn’t die.
The worst was when it happened in the middle of traffic. She would be driving to Starbucks and then everything would stop. Gina: trapped in a motionless car, in a perpetual traffic jam. She looked into the window beside her and caught a woman (not driving) staring at a man (who was). The woman seemed to be studying the delicate sphere of the man’s wrist. There was something in her gaze that suggested distance. Gina watched her eyes for so long trying to place their expression. When time unstuck itself again, the woman pulled her gaze away from the man’s wrist and looked down at her ring.
After a year of marriage, Amy and Justin stopped having sex.
“Maybe it’s just stress,” Gina said. “Maybe it will get better.”
“Time never makes anything better,” Amy said.
She pulled the blanket up to her chin. She was sleeping on Gina’s couch, under the blanket that, years ago, Gina’s mother had knit for her. A splinter of a streetlight pierced the center of her forehead like a third eye.
She still liked to go out to the lake and watch the boys row. On good days, when they moved in sync, there was a moment, as their oars picked out of the water, when the boat seemed to lift into the air. Gina lived for those moments of untethering. She had the idea that if time froze at that exact second she could walk across the water like it was made of glass, she could lie down between the wood and the wet and understand.
The night that Amy slept on her couch, Gina stepped out into the still street and began to run. She felt the small rolls of fat that hung over the sides of her compression shorts; they shook as she moved. A group of men (all shirtless) hustled past her and almost knocked her off her feet. She watched the tight muscles of their shoulders slide like sharp wings up and down as they passed into the distance. Like pixels, pink slipped into her eyes and the sun dipped behind the horizon. Everyone around her stopped moving. Gina didn’t slow down. She jogged by the shirtless men, knees lifted high enough to almost touch their chests. Her house keys, which she’d stuffed inside her sports bra, began to chafe at the bottom of her breasts. In this moment, breathing felt like the most concentrated action she could perform. If she ignored everything else, if she listened only to her lungs, she could almost forget about her mother’s museum-ed drawers, Amy’s small body on her couch. About the fact that no matter how she moved everyone she knew was traveling further and further away from her, at a speed she could never match.