Ellen Klages is an American writer who has published two acclaimed young-adult novels. The Green Glass Sea, which won the Scott O’Dell Award, the New Mexico Book Award, and the Judy Lopez Memorial Award, and White Sands, Red Menace, which won the California and New Mexico Book awards. Her short stories have been nominated for the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, World Fantasy Award, and Campbell Award. Her story, “Basement Magic,” won a Nebula in 2005. She lives in San Francisco, in a small house full of strange and wondrous things. “Time Gypsy” was first published in 1998, in Bending the Landscape: Science Fiction, edited by Nicola Griffith and Stephen Pagel.
Friday, February 10, 1995. 5:00 p.m.
As soon as I walk in the door, my officemate Ted starts in on me.
Again. “What do you know about radiation equilibrium?” he asks.
“That figures.” He holds up a faded green volume. “I just found this insanely great article by Chandrasekhar in the ’45 Astrophysical Journal. And get this – when I go to check it out, the librarian tells me I’m the first person to take it off the shelf since 1955. Can you believe that? Nobody reads anymore.” He opens the book again. “Oh, by the way, Chambers was here looking for you.”
I drop my armload of books on my desk with a thud. Dr. Raymond Chambers is the chairman of the Physics department, and a Nobel Prize winner, which even at Berkeley is a very, very big deal. Rumor has it he’s working on some top secret government project that’s a shoe-in for a second trip to Sweden.
“Yeah, he wants to see you in his office, pronto. He said something about Sara Baxter Clarke. She’s that crackpot from the 50s, right? The one who died mysteriously?”
I wince. “That’s her. I did my dissertation on her and her work.” I wish I’d brought another sweater. This one has holes in both elbows. I’d planned a day in the library, not a visit with the head of the department.
Ted looks at me with his mouth open. “Not many chick scientists to choose from, huh? And you got a post-doc here doing that? Crazy world.” He puts his book down and stretches. “Gotta run. I’m a week behind in my lab work. Real science, you know?”
I don’t even react. It’s only a month into the term, and he’s been on my case about one thing or another – being a woman, being a dyke, being close to 30 – from day one. He’s a jerk, but I’ve got other things to worry about. Like Dr. Chambers, and whether I’m about to lose my job because he found out I’m an expert on a crackpot.
Sara Baxter Clarke has been my hero since I was a kid. My pop was an army technician. He worked on radar systems, and we traveled a lot – six months in Reykjavik, then the next six in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Mom always told us we were gypsies, and tried to make it seem like an adventure. But when I was eight, mom and my brother Jeff were killed in a bus accident on Guam. After that it didn’t seem like an adventure any more.
Pop was a lot better with radar than he was with little girls. He couldn’t quite figure me out. I think I had too many variables for him. When I was ten, he bought me dresses and dolls, and couldn’t understand why I wanted a stack of old physics magazines the base library was throwing out. I liked science. It was about the only thing that stayed the same wherever we moved. I told Pop I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up, but he said scientists were men, and I’d just get married.
I believed him, until I discovered Sara Baxter Clarke in one of those old magazines. She was British, went to MIT, had her doctorate in theoretical physics at 22. At Berkeley, she published three brilliant articles in very, very obscure journals. In 1956, she was scheduled to deliver a controversial fourth paper at an international physics conference at Stanford. She was the only woman on the program, and she was just 28.
No one knows what was in her last paper. The night before she was supposed to speak, her car went out of control and plunged over a cliff at Devil’s Slide – a remote stretch of coast south of San Francisco. Her body was washed out to sea. The accident rated two inches on the inside of the paper the next day – right under a headline about some vice raid – but made a small uproar in the physics world. None of her papers or notes were ever found; her lab had been ransacked. The mystery was never solved.
I was fascinated by the mystery of her the way other kids were intrigued by Amelia Earhart. Except nobody’d ever heard of my hero. In my imagination, Sara Baxter Clarke and I were very much alike. I spent a lot of days pretending I was a scientist just like her, and even more lonely nights talking to her until I fell asleep.
So after a master’s in Physics, I got a Ph.D. in the History of Science – studying her. Maybe if my obsession had been a little more practical, I wouldn’t be sitting on a couch outside Dr. Chambers’s office, picking imaginary lint off my sweater, trying to pretend I’m not panicking. I taught science in a junior high for a year. If I lose this fellowship, I suppose I could do that again. It’s a depressing thought.
The great man’s secretary finally buzzes me into his office. Dr. Chambers is a balding, pouchy man in an immaculate, perfect suit. His office smells like lemon furniture polish and pipe tobacco. It’s wood-paneled, plushly carpeted, with about an acre of mahogany desk. A copy of my dissertation sits on one corner.
“Dr. McCullough.” He waves me to a chair. “You seem to be quite an expert on Sara Baxter Clarke.”
“She was a brilliant woman,” I say nervously, and hope that’s the right direction for the conversation.
“Indeed. What do you make of her last paper, the one she never presented?” He picks up my work and turns to a page marked with a pale green Post-it. “‘An Argument for a Practical Tempokinetics?’” He lights his pipe and looks at me through the smoke.
“I’d certainly love to read it,” I say, taking a gamble. I’d give anything for a copy of that paper. I wait for the inevitable lecture about wasting my academic career studying a long-dead crackpot.
“You would? Do you actually believe Clarke had discovered a method for time travel?” he asks. “Time travel, Dr. McCullough?”
I take a bigger gamble. “Yes, I do.”
Then Dr. Chambers surprises me. “So do I. I’m certain of it. I was working with her assistant, Jim Kennedy. He retired a few months after the accident. It’s taken me 40 years to rediscover what was tragically lost back then.”
I stare at him in disbelief. “You’ve perfected time travel?”
He shakes his head. “Not perfected. But I assure you, tempokinetics is a reality.”
Suddenly my knees won’t quite hold me. I sit down in the padded leather chair next to his desk and stare at him. “You’ve actually done it?”
He nods. “There’s been a great deal of research on tempokinetics in the last 40 years. Very hush-hush, of course. A lot of government money. But recently, several key discoveries in high-intensity gravitational field theory have made it possible for us to finally construct a working tempokinetic chamber.”
I’m having a hard time taking this all in. “Why did you want to see me?” I ask.
He leans against the corner of his desk. “We need someone to talk to Dr. Clarke.”
“You mean she’s alive?” My heart skips several beats.
He shakes his head. “No.”
“Dr. McCullough, I approved your application to this university because you know more about Sara Clarke and her work than anyone else we’ve found. I’m offering you a once in a lifetime opportunity.” He clears his throat. “I’m offering to send you back in time to attend the 1956 International Conference for Experimental Physics. I need a copy of Clarke’s last paper.”
I just stare at him. This feels like some sort of test, but I have no idea what the right response is. “Why?” I ask finally.
“Because our apparatus works, but it’s not practical,” Dr. Chambers says, tamping his pipe. “The energy requirements for the gravitational field are enormous. The only material that’s even remotely feasible is an isotope they’ve developed up at the Lawrence lab, and there’s only enough of it for one round trip. I believe Clarke’s missing paper contains the solution to our energy problem.”
After all these years, it’s confusing to hear someone taking Dr. Clarke’s work seriously. I’m so used to being on the defensive about her, I don’t know how to react. I slip automatically into scientist mode – detached and rational. “Assuming your tempokinetic chamber is operational, how do you propose that I locate Dr. Clarke?”
He picks up a piece of stiff ivory paper and hands it to me. “This is my invitation to the opening reception of the conference Friday night, at the St. Francis Hotel. Unfortunately I couldn’t attend. I was back east that week. Family matters.”
I look at the engraved paper in my hand. Somewhere in my files is a xerox copy of one of these invitations. It’s odd to hold a real one. “This will get me into the party. Then you’d like me to introduce myself to Sara Baxter Clarke, and ask her for a copy of her unpublished paper?”
“In a nutshell. I can give you some cash to help, er, convince her if necessary. Frankly, I don’t care how you do it. I want that paper, Dr. McCullough.”
He looks a little agitated now, and there’s a shrill undertone to his voice. I suspect Dr. Chambers is planning to take credit for what’s in the paper, maybe even hoping for that second Nobel. I think for a minute. Dr. Clarke’s will left everything to Jim Kennedy, her assistant and fiancé. Even if Chambers gets the credit, maybe there’s a way to reward the people who actually did the work. I make up a large, random number.
“I think $30,000 should do it.” I clutch the arm of the chair and rub my thumb nervously over the smooth polished wood.
Dr. Chambers starts to protest, then just waves his hand. “Fine. Fine. Whatever it takes. Funding for this project is not an issue. As I said, we only have enough of the isotope to power one trip into the past and back – yours. If you recover the paper successfully, we’ll be able to develop the technology for many, many more excursions. If not—” he lets his sentence trail off.
“Other people have tried this?” I ask, warily. It occurs to me I may be the guinea pig, usually an expendable item.
He pauses for a long moment. “No. You’ll be the first. Your records indicate you have no family, is that correct?”
I nod. My father died two years ago, and the longest relationship I’ve ever had only lasted six months. But Chambers doesn’t strike me as a liberal. Even if I was still living with Nancy, I doubt if he would count her as family. “It’s a big risk. What if I decline?”
“Your post-doc application will be reviewed,” he shrugs. “I’m sure you’ll be happy at some other university.”
So it’s all or nothing. I try to weigh all the variables, make a reasoned decision. But I can’t. I don’t feel like a scientist right now. I feel like a ten-year-old kid, being offered the only thing I’ve ever wanted – the chance to meet Sara Baxter Clarke.
“I’ll do it,” I say.
“Excellent.” Chambers switches gears, assuming a brisk, businesslike manner. “You’ll leave a week from today at precisely 6:32 a.m. You cannot take anything – underwear, clothes, shoes, watch – that was manufactured after 1956. My secretary has a list of antique clothing stores in the area, and some fashion magazines of the times.” He looks at my jeans with distaste. “Please choose something appropriate for the reception. Can you do anything with your hair?”
My hair is short. Nothing radical, not in Berkeley in the 90s. It’s more like early Beatles – what they called a pixie cut when I was a little girl – except I was always too tall and gawky to be a pixie. I run my fingers self-consciously through it and shake my head.
Chambers sighs and continues. “Very well. Now, since we have to allow for the return of Clarke’s manuscript, you must take something of equivalent mass – and also of that era. I’ll give you the draft copy of my own dissertation. You will also be supplied with a driver’s license and university faculty card from the period, along with packets of vintage currency. You’ll return with the manuscript at exactly 11:37 Monday morning. There will be no second chance. Do you understand?”
I nod, a little annoyed at his patronizing tone of voice. “If I miss the deadline, I’ll be stuck in the past forever. Dr. Clarke is the only other person who could possibly send me home, and she won’t be around on Monday morning. Unless—?” I let the question hang in the air.
“Absolutely not. There is one immutable law of tempokinetics, Dr. McCullough. You cannot change the past. I trust you’ll remember that?” he says, standing.
Our meeting is over. I leave his office with the biggest news of my life. I wish I had someone to call and share it with. I’d settle for someone to help me shop for clothes.
* * *
Friday, February 17, 1995. 6:20 a.m.
The supply closet on the ground floor of LeConte Hall is narrow and dimly lit, filled with boxes of rubber gloves, lab coats, shop towels. Unlike many places on campus, the Physics building hasn’t been remodeled in the last 40 years. This has always been a closet, and it isn’t likely to be occupied at 6:30 on any Friday morning.
I sit on the concrete floor, my back against a wall, dressed in an appropriate period costume. I think I should feel nervous, but I feel oddly detached. I sip from a cup of lukewarm 7-11 coffee and observe. I don’t have any role in this part of the experiment – I’m just the guinea pig. Dr. Chambers’s assistants step carefully over my outstretched legs and make the final adjustments to the battery of apparatus that surrounds me.
At exactly 6:28 by my antique Timex, Dr. Chambers himself appears in the doorway. He shows me a thick packet of worn bills and the bulky, rubber-banded typescript of his dissertation, then slips both of them into a battered leather briefcase. He places the case on my lap and extends his hand. But when I reach up to shake it, he frowns and takes the 7-11 cup.
“Good luck, Dr. McCullough,” he says formally. Nothing more. What more would he say to a guinea pig? He looks at his watch, then hands the cup to a young man in a black T-shirt, who types in one last line of code, turns off the light, and closes the door.
I sit in the dark and begin to get the willies. No one has ever done this. I don’t know if the cool linoleum under my legs is the last thing I will ever feel. Sweat drips down between my breasts as the apparatus begins to hum. There is a moment of intense – sensation. It’s not sound, or vibration, or anything I can quantify. It’s as if all the fingernails in the world are suddenly raked down all the blackboards, and in the same moment oxygen is transmuted to lead. I am pressed to the floor by a monstrous force, but every hair on my body is erect. Just when I feel I can’t stand it any more, the humming stops.
My pulse is racing, and I feel dizzy, a little nauseous. I sit for a minute, half-expecting Dr. Chambers to come in and tell me the experiment has failed, but no one comes. I try to stand – my right leg has fallen asleep – and grope for the light switch near the door.
In the light from the single bulb, I see that the apparatus is gone, but the gray metal shelves are stacked with the same boxes of gloves and shop towels. My leg all pins and needles, I lean against a brown cardboard box stenciled Bayside Laundry Service, San Francisco 3, California.
It takes me a minute before I realize what’s odd. Either those are very old towels, or I’m somewhere pre-ZIP code.
I let myself out of the closet, and walk awkwardly down the empty hallway, my spectator pumps echoing on the linoleum. I search for further confirmation. The first room I peer into is a lab – high stools in front of black slab tables with Bunsen burners, gray boxes full of dials and switches. A slide rule at every station.
I’ve made it.
* * *
Friday, February 17, 1956. 7:00 a.m.
The campus is deserted on this drizzly February dawn, as is Telegraph Avenue. The streetlights are still on – white lights, not yellow sodium – and through the mist I can see faint lines of red and green neon on stores down the avenue. I feel like Marco Polo as I navigate through a world that is both alien and familiar. The buildings are the same, but the storefronts and signs look like stage sets or photos from old Life magazines.
It takes me more than an hour to walk downtown. I am disoriented by each shop window, each passing car. I feel as if I’m a little drunk, walking too attentively through the landscape, and not connected to it. Maybe it’s the colors. Everything looks too real. I grew up with grainy black-and-white TV reruns and 50s technicolor films that have faded over time, and it’s disconcerting that this world is not overlaid with that pink-orange tinge.
The warm aromas of coffee and bacon lure me into a hole-in-the-wall cafe. I order the special – eggs, bacon, hash browns and toast. The toast comes dripping with butter and the jelly is in a glass jar, not a little plastic tub. When the bill comes it is 55¢. I leave a generous dime tip then catch the yellow F bus and ride down Shattuck Avenue, staring at the round-fendered black Chevys and occasional pink Studebakers that fill the streets.
The bus is full of morning commuters – men in dark jackets and hats, women in dresses and hats. In my tailored suit I fit right in. I’m surprised that no one looks 50s – retro 50s – the 50s that filtered down to the 90s. No poodle skirts, no DA haircuts. All the men remind me of my pop. A man in a gray felt hat has the Chronicle, and I read over his shoulder. Eisenhower is considering a second term. The San Francisco police chief promises a crackdown on vice. Peanuts tops the comics page and there’s a Rock Hudson movie playing at the Castro Theatre. Nothing new there.
As we cross the Bay Bridge I’m amazed at how small San Francisco looks – the skyline is carved stone, not glass and steel towers. A green Muni streetcar takes me down the middle of Market Street to Powell. I check into the St. Francis, the city’s finest hotel. My room costs less than I’ve paid for a night in a Motel 6.
All my worldly goods fit on the desktop – Chambers’s manuscript; a brown leather wallet with a driver’s license, a Berkeley faculty card, and twenty-three dollars in small bills; the invitation to the reception tonight; and 30,000 dollars in banded stacks of 50-dollar bills. I pull three bills off the top of one stack and put the rest in the drawer, under the cream-colored hotel stationery. I have to get out of this suit and these shoes.
Woolworth’s has a toothbrush and other plastic toiletries, and a tin “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet” alarm clock. I find a pair of pleated pants, an Oxford cloth shirt, and wool sweater at the City of Paris. Macy’s Men’s Shop yields a pair of “dungarees” and two T-shirts I can sleep in – 69 cents each. A snippy clerk gives me the eye in the Boys department, so I invent a nephew, little Billy, and buy him black basketball sneakers that are just my size.
After a shower and a change of clothes, I try to collect my thoughts, but I’m too keyed up to sit still. In a few hours I’ll actually be in the same room as Sara Baxter Clarke. I can’t distinguish between fear and excitement, and spend the afternoon wandering aimlessly around the city, gawking like a tourist.
* * *
Friday, February 17, 1956. 7:00 p.m.
Back in my spectator pumps and my tailored navy suit, I present myself at the doorway of the reception ballroom and surrender my invitation. The tuxedoed young man looks over my shoulder, as if he’s expecting someone behind me. After a moment he clears his throat.
“And you’re Mrs.—?” he asks, looking down at his typewritten list.
“Dr. McCullough,” I say coolly, and give him an even stare. “Mr. Chambers is out of town. He asked me to take his place.”
After a moment’s hesitation he nods, and writes my name on a white card, pinning it to my lapel like a corsage.
Ballroom A is a sea of gray suits, crew cuts, bow-ties and heavy black-rimmed glasses. Almost everyone is male, as I expected, and almost everyone is smoking, which surprises me. Over in one corner is a knot of women in bright cocktail dresses, each with a lacquered football helmet of hair. Barbie’s cultural foremothers.
I accept a canapé from a passing waiter and ease my way to the corner. Which one is Dr. Clarke? I stand a few feet back, scanning nametags. Mrs. Niels Bohr. Mrs. Richard Feynman. Mrs. Ernest Lawrence. I am impressed by the company I’m in, and dismayed that none of the women has a name of her own. I smile an empty cocktail party smile as I move away from the wives and scan the room. Gray suits with a sprinkling of blue, but all male. Did I arrive too early?
I am looking for a safe corner, one with a large, sheltering potted palm, when I hear a blustery male voice say, “So, Dr. Clarke. Trying the H.G. Wells route, are you? Waste of the taxpayer’s money, all that science fiction stuff, don’t you think?”
A woman’s voice answers. “Not at all. Perhaps I can change your mind at Monday’s session.” I can’t see her yet, but her voice is smooth and rich, with a bit of a lilt or a brogue – one of those vocal clues that says “I’m not an American.” I stand rooted to the carpet, so awestruck I’m unable to move.
“Jimmy, will you see if there’s more champagne about?” I hear her ask. I see a motion in the sea of gray and astonish myself by flagging a waiter and taking two slender flutes from his tray. I step forward in the direction of her voice. “Here you go,” I say, trying to keep my hand from shaking. “I’ve got an extra.”
“How very resourceful of you,” she laughs. I am surprised that she is a few inches shorter than me. I’d forgotten she’d be about my age. She takes the glass and offers me her other hand. “Sara Clarke,” she says.
“Carol McCullough.” I touch her palm. The room seems suddenly bright and the voices around me fade into a murmur. I think for a moment that I’m dematerializing back to 1995, but nothing so dramatic happens. I’m just so stunned that I forget to breathe while I look at her.
Since I was ten years old, no matter where we lived, I have had a picture of Sara Baxter Clarke over my desk. I cut it out of that old physics magazine. It is grainy, black and white, the only photo of her I’ve ever found. In it, she’s who I always wanted to be – competent, serious, every inch a scientist. She wears a white lab coat and a pair of rimless glasses, her hair pulled back from her face. A bald man in an identical lab coat is showing her a piece of equipment. Neither of them is smiling.
I know every inch of that picture by heart. But I didn’t know that her hair was a coppery red, or that her eyes were such a deep, clear green. And until this moment, it had never occurred to me that she could laugh.
The slender blond man standing next to her interrupts my reverie. “I’m Jim Kennedy, Sara’s assistant.”
Jim Kennedy. Her fiancé. I feel like the characters in my favorite novel are all coming to life, one by one.
“You’re not a wife, are you?” he asks.
I shake my head. “Post doc. I’ve only been at Cal a month.”
He smiles. “We’re neighbors, then. What’s your field?”
I take a deep breath. “Tempokinetics. I’m a great admirer of Dr. Clarke’s work.” The blustery man scowls at me and leaves in search of other prey.
“Really?” Dr. Clarke turns, raising one eyebrow in surprise. “Well then we should have a chat. Are you—?” She stops in mid-sentence and swears almost inaudibly. “Damn. It’s Dr. Wilkins and I must be pleasant. He’s quite a muckety-muck at the NSF, and I need the funding.” She takes a long swallow of champagne, draining the crystal flute. “Jimmy, why don’t you get Dr. McCullough another drink and see if you can persuade her to join us for supper.”
I start to make a polite protest, but Jimmy takes my elbow and steers me through the crowd to an unoccupied sofa. Half an hour later we are deep in a discussion of quantum field theory when Dr. Clarke appears and says, “Let’s make a discreet exit, shall we? I’m famished.”
Like conspirators, we slip out a side door and down a flight of service stairs. The Powell Street cable car takes us over Nob Hill into North Beach, the Italian section of town. We walk up Columbus to one of my favorite restaurants – the New Pisa – where I discover that nothing much has changed in 40 years except the prices.
The waiter brings a carafe of red wine and a trio of squat drinking glasses and we eat family style – bowls of pasta with red sauce and steaming loaves of crusty garlic bread. I am speechless as Sara Baxter Clarke talks about her work, blithely answering questions I have wanted to ask my whole life. She is brilliant, fascinating. And beautiful. My food disappears without me noticing a single mouthful.
Over coffee and spumoni she insists, for the third time, that I call her Sara, and asks me about my own studies. I have to catch myself a few times, biting back citations from Stephen Hawking and other works that won’t be published for decades. It is such an engrossing, exhilarating conversation, I can’t bring myself to shift it to Chambers’s agenda. We leave when we notice the restaurant has no other customers.
“How about a nightcap?” she suggests when we reach the sidewalk.
“Not for me,” Jimmy begs off. “I’ve got an 8:30 symposium tomorrow morning. But why don’t you two go on ahead. The Paper Doll is just around the corner.”
Sara gives him an odd, cold look and shakes her head. “Not funny, James,” she says and glances over at me. I shrug noncommittally. It seems they have a private joke I’m not in on.
“Just a thought,” he says, then kisses her on the cheek and leaves. Sara and I walk down to Vesuvio’s, one of the bars where Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, and Ginsberg spawned the Beat Generation. Make that will spawn. I think we’re a few months too early.
Sara orders another carafe of raw red wine. I feel shy around her, intimidated, I guess. I’ve dreamed of meeting her for so long, and I want her to like me. As we begin to talk, we discover how similar, and lonely, our childhoods were. We were raised as only children. We both begged for chemistry sets we never got. We were expected to know how to iron, not know about ions. Midway through her second glass of wine, Sara sighs.
“Oh, bugger it all. Nothing’s really changed, you know. It’s still just snickers and snubs. I’m tired of fighting for a seat in the old boys’ club. Monday’s paper represents five years of hard work, and there aren’t a handful of people at this entire conference who’ve had the decency to treat me as anything but a joke.” She squeezes her napkin into a tighter and tighter wad, and a tear trickles down her cheek. “How do you stand it, Carol?”
How can I tell her? I’ve stood it because of you. You’re my hero. I’ve always asked myself what Sara Baxter Clarke would do, and steeled myself to push through. But now she’s not a hero. She’s real, this woman across the table from me. This Sara’s not the invincible, ever-practical scientist I always thought she was. She’s as young and as vulnerable as I am.
I want to ease her pain the way that she, as my imaginary mentor, has always eased mine. I reach over and put my hand over hers; she stiffens, but she doesn’t pull away. Her hand is soft under mine, and I think of touching her hair, gently brushing the red tendrils off the back of her neck, kissing the salty tears on her cheek.
Maybe I’ve always had a crush on Sara Baxter Clarke. But I can’t be falling in love with her. She’s straight. She’s 40 years older than I am. And in the back of my mind, the chilling voice of reality reminds me that she’ll also be dead in two days. I can’t reconcile that with the vibrant woman sitting in this smoky North Beach bar. I don’t want to. I drink two more glasses of wine and hope that will silence the voice long enough for me to enjoy these few moments.
We are still talking, our fingertips brushing on the scarred wooden tabletop, when the bartender announces last call. “Oh, bloody hell,” she says. “I’ve been having such a lovely time I’ve gone and missed the last ferry. I hope I have enough for the cab fare. My Chevy’s over in the car park at Berkeley.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I hear myself say. “I’ve got a room at the hotel. Come back with me and catch the ferry in the morning.” It’s the wine talking. I don’t know what I’ll do if she says yes. I want her to say yes so much.
“No, I couldn’t impose. I’ll simply—” she protests, and then stops. “Oh, yes, then. Thank you. It’s very generous.”
So here we are. At 2:00 a.m. the hotel lobby is plush and utterly empty. We ride up in the elevator in a sleepy silence that becomes awkward as soon as we are alone in the room. I nervously gather my new clothes off the only bed and gesture to her to sit down. I pull a T-shirt out of its crinkly cellophane wrapper. “Here,” I hand it to her. “It’s not elegant, but it’ll have to do as a nightgown.”
She looks at the T-shirt in her lap, and at the dungarees and black sneakers in my arms, an odd expression on her face. Then she sighs, a deep, achy sounding sigh. It’s the oddest reaction to a T-shirt I’ve ever heard.
“The Paper Doll would have been all right, wouldn’t it?” she asks softly.
Puzzled, I stop crinkling the other cellophane wrapper and lean against the dresser. “I guess so. I’ve never been there.” She looks worried, so I keep talking. “But there are a lot of places I haven’t been. I’m new in town. Just got here. Don’t know anybody yet, haven’t really gotten around. What kind of place is it?”
She freezes for a moment, then says, almost in a whisper, “It’s a bar for women.”
“Oh,” I nod. “Well, that’s okay.” Why would Jimmy suggest a gay bar? It’s an odd thing to tell your fiancée. Did he guess about me somehow? Or maybe he just thought we’d be safer there late at night, since—
My musings – and any other rational thoughts – come to a dead stop when Sara Baxter Clarke stands up, cups my face in both her hands and kisses me gently on the lips. She pulls away, just a few inches, and looks at me.
I can’t believe this is happening. “Aren’t you – isn’t Jimmy—?”
“He’s my dearest chum, and my partner in the lab. But romantically? No. Protective camouflage. For both of us,” she answers, stroking my face.
I don’t know what to do. Every dream I’ve ever had is coming true tonight. But how can I kiss her? How can I begin something I know is doomed? She must see the indecision in my face, because she looks scared, and starts to take a step backwards. And I can’t let her go. Not yet. I put my hand on the back of her neck and pull her into a second, longer kiss.
We move to the bed after a few minutes. I feel shy, not wanting to make a wrong move. But she kisses my face, my neck, and pulls me down onto her. We begin slowly, cautiously undressing each other. I fumble at the unfamiliar garter belts and stockings, and she smiles, undoing the rubber clasps for me. Her slender body is pale and freckled, her breasts small with dusty pink nipples.
Her fingers gently stroke my arms, my thighs. When I hesitantly put my mouth on her breast, she moans, deep in her throat, and laces her fingers through my hair. After a minute her hands ease my head down her body. The hair between her legs is ginger, the ends dark and wet. I taste the salty musk of her when I part her lips with my tongue. She moans again, almost a growl. When she comes it is a single, fierce explosion.
We finally fall into an exhausted sleep, spooned around each other, both T-shirts still crumpled on the floor.
* * *
Saturday, February 18, 1956. 7:00 a.m.
Light comes through a crack in the curtains. I’m alone in a strange bed. I’m sure last night was a dream, but then I hear the shower come on in the bathroom. Sara emerges a few minutes later, toweling her hair. She smiles and leans over me – warm and wet and smelling of soap.
“I have to go,” she whispers, and kisses me.
I want to ask if I’ll see her again, want to pull her down next to me and hold her for hours. But I just stroke her hair and say nothing.
She sits on the edge of the bed. “I’ve got an eleven o’clock lab, and there’s another dreadful cocktail thing at Stanford this evening. I’d give it a miss, but Shockley’s going to be there, and he’s front runner for the next Nobel, so I have to make an appearance. Meet me after?”
“Yes,” I say, breathing again. “Where?”
“Why don’t you take the train down. I’ll pick you up at the Palo Alto station at half-past seven and we can drive to the coast for dinner. Wear those nice black trousers. If it’s not too dreary, we’ll walk on the beach.”
She picks up her wrinkled suit from the floor where it landed last night, and gets dressed. “Half past seven, then?” she says, and kisses my cheek. The door clicks shut and she’s gone.
I lie tangled in the sheets, and curl up into the pillow like a contented cat. I am almost asleep again when an image intrudes – a crumpled Chevy on the rocks below Devil’s Slide. It’s like a fragment of a nightmare, not quite real in the morning light. But which dream is real now?
Until last night, part of what had made Sara Baxter Clarke so compelling was her enigmatic death. Like Amelia Earhart or James Dean, she had been a brilliant star that ended so abruptly she became legendary. Larger than life. But I can still feel where her lips brushed my cheek. Now she’s very much life-size, and despite Chambers’s warnings, I will do anything to keep her that way.
* * *
Saturday, February 18, 1956. 7:20 p.m.
The platform at the Palo Alto train station is cold and windy. I’m glad I’ve got a sweater, but it makes my suit jacket uncomfortably tight across my shoulders. I’ve finished the newspaper and am reading the train schedule when Sara comes up behind me.
“Hullo there,” she says. She’s wearing a nubby beige dress under a dark wool coat and looks quite elegant.
“Hi.” I reach to give her a hug, but she steps back.
“Have you gone mad?” she says, scowling. She crosses her arms over her chest. “What on earth were you thinking?”
“Sorry.” I’m not sure what I’ve done. “It’s nice to see you,” I say hesitantly.
“Yes, well, me too. But you can’t just – oh, you know,” she says, waving her hand.
I don’t, so I shrug. She gives me an annoyed look, then turns and opens the car door. I stand on the pavement for a minute, bewildered, then get in.
Her Chevy feels huge compared to the Toyota I drive at home, and there are no seatbelts. We drive in uncomfortable silence all through Palo Alto and onto the winding, two-lane road that leads to the coast. Our second date isn’t going well.
After about ten minutes, I can’t stand it any more. “I’m sorry about the hug. I guess it’s still a big deal here, huh?”
She turns her head slightly, still keeping her eyes on the road. “Here?” she asks. “What utopia are you from, then?”
I spent the day wandering the city in a kind of haze, alternately giddy in love and worrying about this moment. How can I tell her where – when – I’m from? And how much should I tell her about why? I count to three, and then count again before I answer. “From the future.”
“Very funny,” she says. I can hear in her voice that she’s hurt. She stares straight ahead again.
“Sara, I’m serious. Your work on time travel isn’t just theory. I’m a post-doc at Cal. In 1995. The head of the physics department, Dr. Chambers, sent me back here to talk to you. He says he worked with you and Jimmy, back before he won the Nobel Prize.”
She doesn’t say anything for a minute, then pulls over onto a wide place at the side of the road. She switches off the engine and turns towards me.
“Ray Chambers? The Nobel Prize? Jimmy says he can barely do his own lab work.” She shakes her head, then lights a cigarette, flicking the match out the window into the darkness. “Ray set you up for this, didn’t he? To get back at Jimmy for last term’s grade? Well, it’s a terrible joke,” she says turning away, “and you are one of the cruelest people I have ever met.”
“Sara, it’s not a joke. Please believe me.” I reach across the seat to take her hand, but she jerks it away.
I take a deep breath, trying deperately to think of something that will convince her. “Look, I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out. In September, Modern Physics is going to publish an article about you and your work. When I was ten years old – in 1975 – I read it sitting on the back porch of my father’s quarters at Fort Ord. That article inspired me to go into science. I read about you, and I knew when I grew up I wanted to travel through time.”
She stubs out her cigarette. “Go on.”
So I tell her all about my academic career, and my “assignment” from Chambers. She listens without interrupting me. I can’t see her expression in the darkened car.
After I finish, she says nothing, then sighs. “This is rather a lot to digest, you know. But I can’t very well believe in my work without giving your story some credence, can I?” She lights another cigarette, then asks the question I’ve been dreading. “So if you’ve come all this way to offer me an enormous sum for my paper, does that mean something happened to it – or to me?” I still can’t see her face, but her voice is shaking.
I can’t do it. I can’t tell her. I grope for a convincing lie. “There was a fire. A lot of papers were lost. Yours is the one they want.”
“I’m not a faculty member at your Cal, am I?”
She takes a long drag on her cigarette, then asks, so softly I can barely hear her, “Am I—?” She lets her question trail off and is silent for a minute, then sighs again. “No, I won’t ask. I think I prefer to bumble about like other mortals. You’re a dangerous woman, Carol McCullough. I’m afraid you can tell me too many things I have no right to know.” She reaches for the ignition key, then stops. “There is one thing I must know, though. Was last night as carefully planned as everything else?”
“Jesus, no.” I reach over and touch her hand. She lets me hold it this time. “No, I had no idea. Other than finding you at the reception, last night had nothing to do with science.”
To my great relief, she chuckles. “Well, perhaps chemistry, don’t you think?” She glances in the rearview mirror then pulls me across the wide front seat and into her arms. We hold each other in the darkness for a long time, and kiss for even longer. Her lips taste faintly of gin.
We have a leisurely dinner at a restaurant overlooking the beach in Half Moon Bay. Fresh fish and a dry white wine. I have the urge to tell her about the picture, about how important she’s been to me. But as I start to speak, I realize she’s more important to me now, so I just tell her that. We finish the meal gazing at each other as if we were ordinary lovers.
Outside the restaurant, the sky is cloudy and cold, the breeze tangy with salt and kelp. Sara pulls off her high heels and we walk down a sandy path, holding hands in the darkness. Within minutes we are both freezing. I pull her to me and lean down to kiss her on the deserted beach. “You know what I’d like,” I say, over the roar of the surf.
“What?” she murmurs into my neck.
“I’d like to take you dancing.”
She shakes her head. “We can’t. Not here. Not now. It’s against the law, you know. Or perhaps you don’t. But it is, I’m afraid. And the police have been on a rampage in the city lately. One bar lost its license just because two men were holding hands. They arrested both as sexual vagrants and for being – oh, what was the phrase – lewd and dissolute persons.”
“Sexual vagrants? That’s outrageous!”
“Exactly what the newspapers said. An outrage to public decency. Jimmy knew one of the poor chaps. He was in Engineering at Stanford, but after his name and address were published in the paper, he lost his job. Does that still go on where you’re from?”
“I don’t think so. Maybe in some places. I don’t really know. I’m afraid I don’t pay any attention to politics. I’ve never needed to.”
Sara sighs. “What a wonderful luxury that must be, not having to be so careful all the time.”
“I guess so.” I feel a little guilty that it’s not something I worry about. But I was four years old when Stonewall happened. By the time I came out, in college, being gay was more of a lifestyle than a perversion. At least in San Francisco.
“It’s sure a lot more public,” I say after a minute. “Last year there were a quarter of a million people at the Gay Pride parade. Dancing down Market Street and carrying signs about how great it is to be queer.”
“You’re pulling my leg now. Aren’t you?” When I shake my head she smiles. “Well, I’m glad. I’m glad that this witch hunt ends. And in a few months, when I get my equipment up and running, perhaps I shall travel to dance at your parade. But for tonight, why don’t we just go to my house? At least I’ve got a new hi-fi.”
So we head back up the coast. One advantage to these old cars, the front seat is as big as a couch; we drive up Highway 1 sitting next to each other, my arm resting on her thigh. The ocean is a flat, black void on our left, until the road begins to climb and the water disappears behind jagged cliffs. On the driver’s side the road drops off steeply as we approach Devil’s Slide.
I feel like I’m coming to the scary part of a movie I’ve seen before. I’m afraid I know what happens next. My right hand grips the upholstery and I brace myself for the oncoming car or the loose patch of gravel or whatever it is that will send us skidding off the road and onto the rocks.
But nothing happens. Sara hums as she drives, and I realize that although this is the spot I dread, it means nothing to her. At least not tonight.
As the road levels out again, it is desolate, with few signs of civilization. Just beyond a sign that says “Sharp Park” is a trailer camp with a string of bare light bulbs outlining its perimeter. Across the road is a seedy-looking roadhouse with a neon sign that blinks “Hazel’s.” The parking lot is jammed with cars. Saturday night in the middle of nowhere.
We drive another hundred yards when Sara suddenly snaps her fingers and does a U-turn.
Please don’t go back to the cliffs, I beg silently. “What’s up?” I ask out loud.
“Hazel’s. Jimmy was telling me about it last week. It’s become a rather gay club, and since it’s over the county line, out here in the boondocks, he says anything goes. Including dancing. Besides, I thought I spotted his car.”
“Are you sure?”
“No, but there aren’t that many ’39 Packards still on the road. If it isn’t, we’ll just continue on.” She pulls into the parking lot and finds a space at the back, between the trash cans and the ocean.
Hazel’s is a noisy, smoky place – a small, single room with a bar along one side – jammed wall-to-wall with people. Hundreds of them, mostly men, but more than a few women. When I look closer, I realize that some of the “men” are actually women with slicked-back hair, ties, and sportcoats.
We manage to get two beers, and find Jimmy on the edge of the dance floor – a minuscule square of linoleum, not more than 10 × 10, where dozens of people are dancing to Bill Haley & the Comets blasting from the jukebox. Jimmy’s in a tweed jacket and chinos, his arm around the waist of a young Latino man in a tight white T-shirt and even tighter blue jeans. We elbow our way through to them and Sara gives Jimmy a kiss on the cheek. “Hullo, love,” she says.
He’s obviously surprised – shocked – to see Sara, but when he sees me behind her, he grins. “I told you so.”
“James, you don’t know the half of it,” Sara says, smiling, and puts her arm around me.
We dance for a few songs in the hot, crowded bar. I take off my jacket, then my sweater, draping them over the railing next to the bottles of beer. After the next song I roll up the sleeves of my button-down shirt. When Jimmy offers to buy another round of beers, I look at my watch and shake my head. It’s midnight, and as much as I wanted to dance with Sara, I want to sleep with her even more.
“One last dance, then let’s go, okay?” I ask, shouting to be heard over the noise of the crowd and the jukebox. “I’m bushed.”
She nods. Johnny Mathis starts to sing, and we slow dance, our arms around each other. My eyes are closed and Sara’s head is resting on my shoulder when the first of the cops bursts through the front door.
* * *
Sunday, February 19, 1956. 12:05 a.m.
A small army of uniformed men storms into the bar. Everywhere around us people are screaming in panic, and I’m buffeted by the bodies running in all directions. People near the back race for the rear door. A red-faced, heavy-set man in khaki, a gold star on his chest, climbs onto the bar. “This is a raid,” he shouts. He has brought reporters with him, and flashbulbs suddenly illuminate the stunned, terrified faces of people who had been sipping their drinks moments before.
Khaki-shirted deputies, nightsticks in hand, block the front door. There are so many uniforms. At least 40 men – highway patrol, sheriff’s department, and even some army MPs – begin to form a gauntlet leading to the back door, now the only exit.
Jimmy grabs my shoulders. “Dance with Antonio,” he says urgently. “I’ve just met him, but it’s our best chance of getting out of here. I’ll take Sara.”
I nod and the Latino man’s muscular arms are around my waist. He smiles shyly just as someone pulls the plug on the jukebox and Johnny Mathis stops in mid-croon. The room is quiet for a moment, then the cops begin barking orders. We stand against the railing, Jimmy’s arm curled protectively around Sara’s shoulders, Antonio’s around mine. Other people have done the same thing, but there are not enough women, and men who had been dancing now stand apart from each other, looking scared.
The uniforms are lining people up, herding them like sheep toward the back. We join the line and inch forward. The glare of headlights through the half-open back door cuts through the smoky room like the beam from a movie projector. There is an icy draft and I reach back for my sweater, but the railing is too far away, and the crush of people too solid to move any direction but forward. Jimmy sees me shivering and drapes his sportcoat over my shoulders.
We are in line for more than an hour, as the cops at the back door check everyone’s ID. Sara leans against Jimmy’s chest, squeezing my hand tightly once or twice, when no one’s looking. I am scared, shaking, but the uniforms seem to be letting most people go. Every few seconds, a car starts up in the parking lot, and I can hear the crunch of tires on gravel as someone leaves Hazel’s for the freedom of the highway.
As we get closer to the door, I can see a line of black vans parked just outside, ringing the exit. They are paneled with wooden benches, filled with the men who are not going home, most of them sitting with their shoulders sagging. One van holds a few women with crew cuts or slicked-back hair, who glare defiantly into the night.
We are ten people back from the door when Jimmy slips a key into my hand and whispers into my ear. “We’ll have to take separate cars. Drive Sara’s back to the city and we’ll meet at the lobby bar in your hotel.” “The bar will be closed,” I whisper back. “Take my key and meet me in the room. I’ll get another at the desk.” He nods as I hand it to him.
The cop at the door looks at Sara’s elegant dress and coat, barely glances at her outstretched ID, and waves her and Jimmy outside without a word. She pauses at the door and looks back at me, but an MP shakes his head and points to the parking lot. “Now or never, lady,” he says, and Sara and Jimmy disappear into the night.
I’m alone. Antonio is a total stranger, but his strong arm is my only support until a man in a suit pulls him away. “Nice try, sweetie,” the man says to him. “But I’ve seen you in here before, dancing with your pansy friends.” He turns to the khaki-shirted deputy and says, “He’s one of the perverts. Book him.” The cop pulls Antonio’s arm up between his shoulder blades, then cuffs his hands behind his back. “Time for a little ride, pretty boy,” he grins, and drags Antonio out into one of the black vans.
Without thinking, I take a step towards his retreating back. “Not so fast,” says another cop, with acne scars across both cheeks. He looks at Jimmy’s jacket, and down at my pants and my black basketball shoes with a sneer. Then he puts his hands on my breasts, groping me. “Loose ones. Not all tied down like those other he-shes. I like that.” He leers and pinches one of my nipples.
I yell for help, and try to pull away, but he laughs and shoves me up against the stack of beer cases that line the back hallway. He pokes his nightstick between my legs. “So you want to be a man, huh, butchie? Well, just what do you think you’ve got in there?” He jerks his nightstick up into my crotch so hard tears come to my eyes.
I stare at him, in pain, in disbelief. I am too stunned to move or to say anything. He cuffs my hands and pushes me out the back door and into the van with the other glaring women.
* * *
Sunday, February 19, 1956. 10:00 a.m.
I plead guilty to being a sex offender, and pay the $50 fine. Being arrested can’t ruin my life. I don’t even exist here.
Sara and Jimmy are waiting on a wooden bench outside the holding cell of the San Mateo County jail. “Are you all right, love?” she asks.
I shrug. “I’m exhausted. I didn’t sleep. There were ten of us in one cell. The woman next to me – a stone butch? – really tough, Frankie – she had a pompadour – two cops took her down the hall – when she came back the whole side of her face was swollen, and after that she didn’t say anything to anyone, but I’m okay, I just—” I start to shake. Sara takes one arm and Jimmy takes the other, and they walk me gently out to the parking lot.
The three of us sit in the front seat of Jimmy’s car, and as soon as we are out of sight of the jail, Sara puts her arms around me and holds me, brushing the hair off my forehead. When Jimmy takes the turnoff to the San Mateo bridge, she says, “We checked you out of the hotel this morning. Precious little to check, actually, except for the briefcase. Anyway, I thought you’d be more comfortable at my house. We need to get you some breakfast and a bed.” She kisses me on the cheek. “I’ve told Jimmy everything, by the way.”
I nod sleepily, and the next thing I know we’re standing on the front steps of a brown shingled cottage and Jimmy’s pulling away. I don’t think I’m hungry, but Sara makes scrambled eggs and bacon and toast, and I eat every scrap of it. She runs a hot bath, grimacing at the purpling, thumb-shaped bruises on my upper arms, and gently washes my hair and my back. When she tucks me into bed, pulling a blue quilt around me, and curls up beside me, I start to cry. I feel so battered and so fragile, and I can’t remember the last time someone took care of me this way.
* * *
Sunday, February 19, 1956. 5:00 p.m.
I wake up to the sound of rain and the enticing smell of pot roast baking in the oven. Sara has laid out my jeans and a brown sweater at the end of the bed. I put them on, then pad barefoot into the kitchen. There are cardboard boxes piled in one corner, and Jimmy and Sara are sitting at the yellow formica table with cups of tea, talking intently.
“Oh good, you’re awake.” She stands and gives me a hug. “There’s tea in the pot. If you think you’re up to it, Jimmy and I need to tell you a few things.”
“I’m a little sore, but I’ll be okay. I’m not crazy about the 50s, though.” I pour from the heavy ceramic pot. The tea is some sort of Chinese blend, fragrant and smoky. “What’s up?”
“First a question. If my paper isn’t entirely – complete – could there possibly be any repercussions for you?”
I think for a minute. “I don’t think so. If anyone knew exactly what was in it, they wouldn’t have sent me.”
“Splendid. In that case, I’ve come to a decision.” She pats the battered brown briefcase. “In exchange for the extraordinary wad of cash in here, we shall send back a perfectly reasonable-sounding paper. What only the three of us will know is that I have left a few things out. This, for example.” She picks up a pen, scribbles a complex series of numbers and symbols on a piece of paper, and hands it to me.
I study it for a minute. It’s very high-level stuff, but I know enough physics to get the gist of it. “If this really works, it’s the answer to the energy problem. It’s exactly the piece Chambers needs.”
“Very, very good,” she says, smiling. “It’s also the part I will never give him.”
I raise one eyebrow.
“I read the first few chapters of his dissertation this afternoon while you were sleeping,” she says, tapping the manuscript with her pen. “It’s a bit uneven, although parts of it are quite good. Unfortunately, the good parts were written by a graduate student named Gilbert Young.”
I raise the other eyebrow. “But that paper’s what Chambers wins the Nobel for.”
“Son of a bitch.” Jimmy slaps his hand down onto the table. “Gil was working for me while he finished the last of his dissertation. He was a bright guy, original research, solid future – but he started having these headaches. The tumor was inoperable, and he died six months ago. Ray said he’d clean out Gil’s office for me. I just figured he was trying to get back on my good side.”
“We can’t change what Ray does with Gil’s work. But I won’t give him my work to steal in the future.” Sara shoves Chambers’s manuscript to the other side of the table. “Or now. I’ve decided not to present my paper in the morning.”
I feel very lightheaded. I know she doesn’t give her paper, but – “Why not?” I ask.
“While I was reading the manuscript this afternoon, I heard that fat sheriff interviewed on the radio. They arrested 90 people at Hazel’s last night, Carol, people like us. People who only wanted to dance with each other. But he kept bragging about how they cleaned out a nest of perverts. And I realized – in a blinding moment of clarity – that the university is a branch of the state, and the sheriff is enforcing the state’s laws. I’m working for people who believe it’s morally right to abuse you – or me – or Jimmy. And I can’t do that any more.”
“Here, here!” Jimmy says, smiling. “The only problem is, as I explained to her this morning, the administration is likely to take a very dim view of being embarrassed in front of every major physicist in the country. Not to mention they feel Sara’s research is university property.” He looks at me and takes a sip of tea. “So we decided it might be best if Sara disappeared for a while.”
I stare at both of them, my mouth open. I have that same odd feeling of déjà vu that I did in the car last night.
“I’ve cleaned everything that’s hers out of our office and the lab,” Jimmy says. “It’s all in the trunk of my car.”
“And those,” Sara says, gesturing to the boxes in the corner, “are what I value from my desk and my library here. Other than my Nana’s teapot and some clothes, it’s all I’ll really need for a while. Jimmy’s family has a vacation home out in West Marin, so I won’t have to worry about rent – or privacy.”
I’m still staring. “What about your career?”
Sara puts down her teacup with a bang and begins pacing the floor. “Oh, bugger my career. I’m not giving up my work, just the university – and its hypocrisy. If one of my colleagues had a little fling, nothing much would come of it. But as a woman, I’m supposed to be some sort of paragon of unsullied Victorian virtue. Just by being in that bar last night, I put my ‘career’ in jeopardy. They’d crucify me if they knew who – or what – I am. I don’t want to live that way any more.”
She brings the teapot to the table and sits down, pouring us each another cup. “End of tirade. But that’s why I had to ask about your money. It’s enough to live on for a good long while, and to buy all the equipment I need. In a few months, with a decent lab, I should be this close,” she says, holding her thumb and forefinger together, “to time travel in practice as well as in theory. And that discovery will be mine – ours. Not the university’s. Not the government’s.”
Jimmy nods. “I’ll stay down here and finish this term. That way I can keep tabs on things and order equipment without arousing suspicion.”
“Won’t they come looking for you?” I ask Sara. I feel very surreal. Part of me has always wanted to know why this all happened, and part of me feels like I’m just prompting the part I know comes next.
“Not if they think there’s no reason to look,” Jimmy says. “We’ll take my car back to Hazel’s and pick up hers. Devil’s Slide is only a few miles up the road. It’s—”
“It’s a rainy night,” I finish. “Treacherous stretch of highway. Accidents happen there all the time. They’ll find Sara’s car in the morning, but no body. Washed out to sea. Everyone will think it’s tragic that she died so young,” I say softly. My throat is tight and I’m fighting back tears. “At least I always have.”
They both stare at me. Sara gets up and stands behind me, wrapping her arms around my shoulders. “So that is how it happens?” she asks, hugging me tight. “All along you’ve assumed I’d be dead in the morning?”
I nod. I don’t trust my voice enough to say anything.
To my great surprise, she laughs. “Well, I’m not going to be. One of the first lessons you should have learned as a scientist is never assume,” she says, kissing the top of my head. “But what a terrible secret for you to have been carting about. Thank you for not telling me. It would have ruined a perfectly lovely weekend. Now let’s all have some supper. We’ve a lot to do tonight.”
* * *
Monday, February 20, 1956. 12:05 a.m.
“What on earth are you doing?” Sara asks, coming into the kitchen and talking around the toothbrush in her mouth. “It’s our last night – at least for a while. I was rather hoping you’d be waiting in bed when I came out of the bathroom.”
“I will. Two more minutes.” I’m sitting at the kitchen table, rolling a blank sheet of paper into her typewriter. I haven’t let myself think about going back in the morning, about leaving Sara, and I’m delaying our inevitable conversation about it for as long as I can. “While we were driving back from wrecking your car, I had an idea about how to nail Chambers.”
She takes the toothbrush out of her mouth. “It’s a lovely thought, but you know you can’t change anything that happens.”
“I can’t change the past,” I agree. “But I can set a bomb with a very long fuse. Like 40 years.”
“What? You look like the cat that’s eaten the canary.” She sits down next to me.
“I’ve retyped the title page to Chambers’s dissertation – with your name on it. First thing in the morning, I’m going to rent a large safe deposit box at the Wells Fargo Bank downtown, and pay the rent in advance. Sometime in 1995, there’ll be a miraculous discovery of a complete Sara Baxter Clarke manuscript. The bomb is that, after her tragic death, the esteemed Dr. Chambers appears to have published it under his own name – and won the Nobel Prize for it.”
“No, you can’t. It’s not my work either, it’s Gil’s and—” she stops in mid-sentence, staring at me. “And he really is dead. I don’t suppose I dare give a fig about academic credit anymore, should I?”
“I hope not. Besides, Chambers can’t prove it’s not yours. What’s he going to say – Carol McCullough went back to the past and set me up? He’ll look like a total idiot. Without your formula, all he’s got is a time machine that won’t work. Remember, you never present your paper. Where I come from it may be okay to be queer, but time travel is still just science fiction.”
She laughs. “Well, given a choice, I suppose that’s preferable, isn’t it?”
I nod and pull the sheet of paper out of the typewriter.
“You’re quite a resourceful girl, aren’t you?” Sara says, smiling. “I could use an assistant like you.” Then her smile fades and she puts her hand over mine. “I don’t suppose you’d consider staying on for a few months and helping me set up the lab? I know we’ve only known each other for two days. But this – I – us – Oh, dammit, what I’m trying to say is I’m going to miss you.”
I squeeze her hand in return, and we sit silent for a few minutes. I don’t know what to say. Or to do. I don’t want to go back to my own time. There’s nothing for me in that life. A dissertation that I now know isn’t true. An office with a black and white photo of the only person I’ve ever really loved – who’s sitting next to me, holding my hand. I could sit like this forever. But could I stand to live the rest of my life in the closet, hiding who I am and who I love? I’m used to the 90s – I’ve never done research without a computer, or cooked much without a microwave. I’m afraid if I don’t go back tomorrow, I’ll be trapped in this reactionary past forever.
“Sara,” I ask finally, “are you sure your experiments will work?”
She looks at me, her eyes warm and gentle. “If you’re asking if I can promise you an escape back to your own time someday, the answer is no. I can’t promise you anything, love. But if you’re asking if I believe in my work, then yes. I do. Are you thinking of staying, then?”
I nod. “I want to. I just don’t know if I can.”
“Because of last night?” she asks softly.
“That’s part of it. I was raised in a world that’s so different. I don’t feel right here. I don’t belong.”
She kisses my cheek. “I know. But gypsies never belong to the places they travel. They only belong to other gypsies.”
My eyes are misty as she takes my hand and leads me to the bedroom.
* * *
Monday, February 20, 1956. 11:30 a.m.
I put the battered leather briefcase on the floor of the supply closet in LeConte Hall and close the door behind me. At 11:37 exactly, I hear the humming start, and when it stops, my shoulders sag with relief. What’s done is done, and all the dies are cast. In Palo Alto an audience of restless physicists is waiting to hear a paper that will never be read. And in Berkeley, far in the future, an equally restless physicist is waiting for a messenger to finally deliver that paper.
But the messenger isn’t coming back. And that may be the least of Chambers’s worries.
This morning I taped the key to the safe deposit box – and a little note about the dissertation inside – into the 1945 bound volume of The Astrophysical Journal. My officemate Ted was outraged that no one had checked it out of the physics library since 1955. I’m hoping he’ll be even more outraged when he discovers the secret that’s hidden inside it.
I walk out of LeConte and across campus to the coffee shop where Sara is waiting for me. I don’t like the political climate here, but at least I know that it will change, slowly but surely. Besides, we don’t have to stay in the 50s all the time – in a few months, Sara and I plan to do a lot of traveling. Maybe one day some graduate student will want to study the mysterious disappearance of Dr. Carol McCullough. Stranger things have happened.
My only regret is not being able to see Chambers’s face when he opens that briefcase and there’s no manuscript. Sara and I decided that even sending back an incomplete version of her paper was dangerous. It would give Chambers enough proof that his tempokinetic experiment worked for him to get more funding and try again. So the only thing in the case is an anonymous, undated postcard of the St. Francis Hotel that says:
“Having a wonderful time. Thanks for the ride.”