Thanks to Nightwood Editions for allowing us to reprint the text of this story and to ECW Press for allowing us to run an excerpt from the collection’s audiobook; this audiobook was produced as a part of ECW Press’s Bespeak Audio Imprint. You can purchase the print version of this book here and the audiobook here.
God Damn, How Real Is This?
By Doretta Lau
My future self sends me a text message at least once a day.
The latest: Hey, tricho-slut, get your man hands out of our hair. I have a Lake Michigan–shaped bald spot forming on the back of my head. stop plucking. it’s starting to look like a penis.
Last I checked there were no Great Lakes of any sort blooming on my scalp, no Superiors or Hurons or Eries flooding my hair. Of late, these missives from the future have become increasingly more abusive. I wonder, when will I flip my bitch switch and hop on this negative self-talk train? In a week? In a year? I’d like to believe this use of misogynistic language is out of character and that maybe I’m being trolled by a bored identity thief. I file the thought as something for my present self to discuss with my now therapist.
Another message flashes on my phone: That mole on your left arm that you’ve been ignoring? Get thee to a doctor.
I peer down. My arm is presenting itself as blemish free. At times like this I wish I could send a text to my future self to make clear the murky. I want to address important issues such as: “Will I die alone? But that technology hasn’t been invented yet, or our future selves have circumvented its implementation for the good of humanity.”
I call my local clinic and explain my situation.
“This is Franny Siu calling. I can’t find this mole my future self is warning me about, but I’d like to make an appointment to see Doctor Chang.”
“I understand,” says the woman on the phone. “Last week, my future self started blasting me messages about herpes. Today, she escalated to drug-resistant gonorrhea. I think she’s trying to tell me that my boyfriend is cheating on me.”
“No sex for the hexed,” I say, unsure how to handle this kind of intimacy with a near stranger.
“Come at two tomorrow afternoon.”
“Great. See you tomorrow,” I say, and hang up.
Despite this disruption, I still have time before my therapy session to stop by my ex-colleague Rita’s house and check on her. Rita has not left her house in months because her future self keeps divining death and destruction. As soon as she thinks of doing something — innocuous activities such as watching a movie or washing her feet — a new text arrives dissuading her from taking action.
I pack up some leftover food and a stack of library books, slap SPF 90 sunscreen on my face and arms, and get on my bike. A block from Rita’s, I see that Chronology Purists have purchased a new billboard: Has communicative time travel ruined your life? Our counsellors are ready to talk.
I think about calling the number listed, but decide instead to stop at a convenience store to pick up additional supplies.
The scene indoors is vaguely apocalyptic. The lights are off. Many shelves gape, emptied of goods. Since the texts from the future began arriving nine months earlier, people have been hoarding canned food and toilet paper out of fear that the new technology has sparked end times. I sigh. Spoiler alert, present-day peons: it’s our appalling behaviour that blights our existence.
I grab a loaf of bread and head to the counter. The clerk is wearing a bulletproof vest.
“What if I shot you in the head?” I ask. “The vest wouldn’t do you much good then.”
“Do you think you’re the first to ask that, smartass? My future self has already pointed that out to me, thank you very much,” he says.
“How does the store stay afloat without the scratch-and-wins?” I ask, motioning to the bare strip of space under the Plexiglas countertop. Three months ago, the government suspended all forms of gambling. I miss the surprise of running a toonie across a scratch card, that sick joy of self-inflicted failure that’s preceded ever so briefly by hope.
“That will be ten dollars, please,” he says, pointing to the bread.
I reach Rita’s house and speak through the front door. “Hey, I’m leaving you some gazpacho. The ingredients are organic. I triplefiltered the water. There’s also a loaf of gluten-free bread and the books you asked for.”
No answer. The smell of feet lingers in the air.
“Just send me a text,” I say.
My phone pings with a message from present-Rita: Thanks, Franny. There’s twenty bucks for you under the doormat and a book that needs to be returned.
“Your recent actions are fashioning me into an enabler,” I say, stooping down to look under the mat. “I don’t like who I am becoming under your influence.”
I text her: your future self is chicken little. your future self has become your mother.
No response. I move on.
My therapist, Kelly, does not have a cellphone. She’s a Chronology Purist — she wants her life to play out exactly as it would have if communicative time travel had not been invented. I don’t get how this is possible, given that the timeline has already been breached, but logic is not my strong suit so maybe I’m missing the point. Sometimes her future self tries to get in touch with her via my phone, but present-Kelly has instructed me never to pass on any information.
I’m in the uncomfortable position of knowing that the majority of her stocks will tank in the next six months . . . though I suppose if I do pass on the information, it would be classified as insider trading.
I keep my mouth shut; we both stay out of jail. I wonder if I should look for a new therapist.
“How was your week?” Kelly asks.
“I worry that I am a misogynist,” I say. “My future self is really fond of calling me a slut or a whore, which I find puzzling because I never use either of those words. I’d be much more likely to refer to myself as a douchebag.”
“What at present do you think is causing this negativity?”
“I don’t know. I’m frustrated with the fact that I can’t communicate with my future self. I mean, I guess I could leave notes for her in my journal, but I don’t know if she’ll ever see them.”
“What can you do right now that will make you feel better?”
“I guess I could write a letter to myself, and you can give it back to me six months later.”
“Okay, do you want to try that this week?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Our time is up,” she says, standing. “Until next week.”
As soon I leave the office, a new message arrives from my future self: Hey rickets breath, have you taken your calcium and vitamin-D supplement today?
I hit delete.
Kelly’s future self is angry with me: I’m going to have to raise my fees to cover my losses, so you’re the one who will suffer if you don’t tell me to sell the stock.
I decide to write two letters: one to my future self and one to Kelly’s.
The next day at the doctor’s office, the waiting room is a cacophony of phones beeping and bleeping. Everyone looks anxious. I know now that ignorance is Eden. If I knew how to code a virus, I would
direct my future self to send the inventor of communicative time travel a diseased email to avert this reality.
I text Wilson to meet me at 2:30 at a coffee shop across from the clinic — I need someone to talk to in case I have terminal cancer — and he replies with an immediate affirmative. The receptionist, who does not look ill, calls my name and leads me to a private room.
Doctor Chang appears after a few minutes. He examines my arm and says, “Do you think that maybe — and I don’t want to sound judgmental — that your future self suffers from a touch of Münchausen by proxy?”
“What makes you say that?”
“You’ve been here seven times during this past month. You complain of future ailments, but in actuality they’re merely imaginary diseases foisted upon you by your future self.”
“I read somewhere that the child is the father of the man,” I say.
“Are you still pulling your hair out?”
“Did my future self contact you about that?”
“I’m sorry we have no boundaries,” I say. “Also, isn’t my condition just Münchausen? I mean, I’m still me, even in the future. No proxy.”
Doctor Chang gives me a look that indicates that he is the medical professional and I am just a poor excuse for a patient. I leave his office in shame. My diagnosis? Dormant Münchausen by proxy.
Wilson is late for our meeting at the coffee shop. My hand wanders to my tresses. My phone pings. Whorebag! place your man hands where I can see them or I’ll shoot!
I sigh and fold my hands in my lap. The last thing I need is for my future self to become suicidal and send an assassin my way.
Fifteen minutes, three hairs and four text messages later, Wilson rolls in on a skateboard.
“Konichiwa,” he says, kissing me on the cheek. “Nice dress.”
“Those wheels become less and less an acceptable form of transportation with each passing calendar year,” I say to him.
“I broke up with Cynthia,” he says with a shrug. “I live for today.”
Two months ago, Wilson’s future self went silent. No texts or email. He concluded that his future self was dead, so his motto became carpe diem. He made a bucket list, which included things such as climb Mount Everest, learn Japanese and eat yogurt for the first time ever. Everest was a bust (summit, avalanche) and he’s lactose intolerant. I suspect this list could be the reason for his early demise, but I haven’t said anything because I don’t want to be a killjoy.
“Did you get a haircut?” I ask.
“I did — that’s why I was late. So, how did your appointment go?”
“My doctor says I have dormant Münchausen by proxy but I think it may just be plain Münchausen since I’m doing it to myself,” I say.
“There’s now a hold on my insurance for a month and I can only seek medical help in life or death situations. Also, Rita still won’t leave her house.”
“Forget your troubles. I’m here! Come to the park with me,” Wilson says, grabbing my hand.
“Is there a cliff you want to jump off?”
“Something like that. Better, actually. Also, I stopped drinking coffee and I don’t like the way they serve tea here.”
“What’s better than jumping off a cliff?” I ask.
“You’ll see,” he says, smiling.
We leave on our separate vehicles. I reach the park first. Wilson shows up with a fresh bruise on his arm.
“I fell,” he says. “I wish my future self were alive so he could send warnings.”
“Everyone is afraid to live now,” I say. “You should be thankful for the radio silence.”
“I’m nearly done everything on my list. There’s only one thing left.”
“What is it?” I ask.
He points to something in the trees. I gaze up in search of this final thing, sure that I’m about to witness some new kind of beauty, but I don’t see anything. When I look back at Wilson his face has travelled
and is inches from mine. He kisses me. I close my eyes and think only of the present.
We separate. He smiles.
“I feel the same way about you, too,” I say.
His phone pings. A look of surprise lights up his face. “It’s a text from my future self.”
You magnificent bastard, it reads. I’m glad you stopped being a scared little pansy and chose to live life. Don’t fuck this up for us. I love her.
He turns off his phone, but not before I glimpse the rest of the message.
Tell her to get that mole on her left arm checked.
About the Author
Doretta Lau is the author of the short story collection How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? (Nightwood Editions, 2014), which was shortlisted for the City of Vancouver Book Award, longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story 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. She completed an MFA in Writing at Columbia University. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Day One, Event, Grain Magazine, Prairie Fire, PRISM International, Ricepaper, Room Magazine, sub-TERRAIN, and Zen Monster. Doretta splits her time between Vancouver and Hong Kong, where she is writing a comedic novel about an inept company struggling to open a theme park about death and an essay collection about navigating volcanoes, illness, and other enormities on the worst timeline. She is the cofounder of an editorial and marketing services company Start to Finish Agency.
Photo credit: Ming Kai Leung.
About the Narrator
Andrea Bang was born and raised in Burnaby, B.C. She grew up wanting to be a librarian, designer, fairy, teacher, cashier, critic, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, construction worker – and the list goes on. Since they didn’t offer a class in Vampire Slaying, she took the equivalent: a degree in Psychology, acting classes and spewing witty comebacks at objects with no reflection.
Outside of acting, Andrea enjoys making things (crafting, sewing, moviemaking), writing and watching too many films. Some of her work can be seen on Inanimate Funnies. Currently she’s on CBC’s “Kim’s Convenience”, a comedy based on Ins Choi’s award-winning play, which can be seen on Netflix or CBC!