Fiction,  Issue 2

Out of Sync by Michael Chin

I was falling out of sync, I just didn’t realize how badly. The accident was a wakeup call. 

I stopped at a light just as it was turning red. A blink of an eye and I had horns blaring at me from every direction. A car winged past me, swerving into the lane of oncoming traffic to circumnavigate my Civic as if I’d broken down, except with the extra malice of a middle finger stretched across their passenger seat.

The light had turned green. I didn’t know how it could have so quickly, let alone how a string of cars had lined up behind me. I figured it was a fluke, though—a trick-light that had only stayed red for a second. I lifted my foot off the brake and lurched forward, only to smash into the Camry in front of me.

Smash is probably too strong of a word for a collision at ten miles per hour, but smash was the word the driver used, along with rear-ended after he’d gotten out of his car, stopped in the middle of the intersection—more car horns all around us—to inspect the damage. He was already on his phone, talking about how the asshole stopped at the green light smashed into me when I passed him. He turned to me—his license plate had taken the brunt of the blow, a little vertical crater just left of center, running up and down. What were you thinking, asshole?

I’ve never been much for confrontation, but I also remembered my father, who was an insurance agent, had engrained in me long before I ever drove to never admit fault in the case of an accident. So, I didn’t let the apology bubbling in me escape my lips, but rather stuck to the facts as I knew them—that I don’t know, man—because to say he came out of nowhere felt stupid. Another of the rules my father had taught me when he started teaching me to drive was that if someone got rear-ended, it was always the person coming from behind who was at fault, and I asked what if the person in front had the car in reverse, and he told me not to get smart, and I tried to explain that I wasn’t, and that I didn’t understand, but I could already tell it was one of the many times the two of us were out of sync.

The most remarkable thing about an accident—a minor one, at least—is that you go from your daily business, to a catastrophe, back to normal afterwards, as if nothing happened. My car was the worse for wear—the hood knocked out of alignment the check engine light lit up on the dash, but otherwise there was no sign the car wasn’t running properly. I’d need to take it into the shop, but that was the next day’s problem. 

That night’s problem was Julie. I was supposed to meet her at The Red Plate at seven.

Julie complained a lot about me being late—exaggerated complaints, I always thought, but they fell alongside condemnations about how dirty my fingernails were and that I let too many dishes sit dirty in the kitchen sink too long. 

She was seething, two-thirds of the way through a bottle of Pinot Noir.

“You look nice,” I tried.

“What the hell happened to you?” She tore a hunk of bread from the little loaf. There were enough crumbs on the tablecloth that that couldn’t have been the first basket the waiter brought her. We ate there regularly enough that they wouldn’t rush her out, that they’d keep bringing her bread. I hoped it was her first bottle of wine.

She told me I was an hour and a half late, which seemed like another—a particularly egregious—exaggeration. The accident had slowed me down, sure, but only a half hour, forty-five minutes tops.

Only she held up her phone. The phone that used to have the home screen set to a picture of us, that suddenly had a picture of her and her cat Flamingo trying to gnaw on her corn on the cob. More to the point, the clock on the top of screen showed it was 8:40.

Ordinarily, she wouldn’t have waited that long. She would have left the restaurant and awaited my pleading, apologizing texts. Maybe she’d let me buy Thai food and come over anyway and we’d eat seated on the floor, backs to the couch, plastic trays and paper cartons spread across her coffee table. Maybe she’d leave my messages unanswered until she cooled off a day or two later and we tried again.

But she’d waited.

“I don’t think you have time for me,” she said. The more we talked the more it became clear that that meant she didn’t have time for me—time to be left waiting at restaurants when she’d scrambled to get out of the office in time to get changed and get there on time. When the waiter came back, I was surprised when she paused and did make an order, but maybe that was more hunger than a desire to stay. Rushed, I ordered what I remembered eating at this place the time before—though I remembered not caring for it—a Caesar Salad with grilled chicken. That and an Old Fashioned. The bar was better than the food at this place.

It felt like hours passed before I had my drink, maybe another hour before we had our meals and Julie reminded me of all the times I’d not only left her waiting but let her down, like when I forgot her parents’ anniversary party altogether, and the humiliation of her elderly, largely clueless father insisting he thought I’d propose that night. I glanced at my phone to see how on earth the food could be taking this long, only to find it was still a couple minutes before nine. Could I be reading the clock wrong? Could I have read Julie’s phone wrong when I first sat down, and maybe I hadn’t really been so late?

I didn’t dare ask to see her phone—not that I had the chance to before she was ranting about how I couldn’t even offer the common courtesy of listening without looking at my phone. It wasn’t the first time I’d been on the receiving end of this lecture, but it did occur to me, while it was underway, that every moment of our interaction that evening had been a reprimand, and it was all in a reasonably crowded restaurant. Julie usually restricted herself to the passive aggression in public, saved the juicy bits for home.

After the food came, she talked and ate and talked and ate, wolfing down her shrimp scampi, but still spitting out words to condemn me with every bite, because I was selfish and disrespectful and couldn’t hold down a job. I tried to correct her about that. I had a job for close to two months by that point. Not a glamorous gig. Not even a necessary gig, staffing the front desk at a copy and print place where nine out of ten customers swiped cards and operated the machines for themselves and those who needed help tended to be passive enough that I could do all of the work for them and be done in a minute or two. It was the kind of work I felt certain would be phased out as technology got smarter and could troubleshoot for the most helpless customers. When I first took the job, I thought I’d be so bored that I’d have to quit before long, and it was dull sometimes, but often as not I found the time flew. Get there and the next thing I knew it was time for lunch. Get back and it was time to close up shop before I knew it. The job became a lesson in how quickly a day—maybe a life—could slip away if you let it.

Thirty hours a week. I earned just a shave more than minimum wage.

I tried to break in to explain all of this. I’d tried before, talking about this job, about how strange it could be, but she dismissed my job, because there was no work to take home, no meaningful decisions to be made. To Julie, there was hard work and there was easy work, and those of us who didn’t have it hard had no reason to complain.

I could never get the words in. She circled and spiraled, sometimes on the topic of work, but just as quickly about the time I left her waiting on her birthday. She broke barely long enough to comment to the waiter that we’d take separate checks.

And she never seemed to stop eating. Never seemed to stop talking. The lettuce of my salad was wilted, or maybe it became wilted hanging from my fork, beneath the weight of thick gray dressing. I couldn’t speak but I kept trying and it seemed like I never got a bite in.

Then Julie was done. Plate bare. Wine bottle empty. She was gone. I’m not sure how long she’d been gone before it registered that she hadn’t only left dinner, but left me.

The waiter put a hand on my shoulder. A minor mercy. The restaurant had lit up, and I realized the staff was cleaning. Around me, table clothes were folded and piled. A vacuum cleaner ran. “You’ve had a bad night,” It seemed impossible he was talking through a moustache as thick as his. His hand was large enough to envelop my shoulder. “This one’s on the house. Do you want a box for your salad?”

Offering the free meal was probably just a way of getting me out the door, because who knew how long it would take the man who’d dawdled over his salad to pay his bill? The salad had turned soupy. Too much dressing. The chicken sweating out in the open, croutons bobbing as if for air out of the mess of it all. I couldn’t imagine eating another bite.

*

My father and I didn’t have a regularly scheduled time to talk, but fell in the habit of calling one another in the evening hours, it seemed weekly, but maybe it was only once a month. Maybe once a year. Who can keep track?

I told him about the sensation of losing time. I didn’t talk about the accident or Julie—I’d learned long ago that the more specific I got in these chats, the more prone my father was to give unsolicited advice.

He offered advice just the same. “Dr. Rabinowitz. He’s got an office in the Rotunda in Hamden. Set up an appointment.”

I asked him what kind of doctor this was, and all he would tell me was that he’d had a situation like mine and it was better get a diagnosis and to start making a plan sooner than later. I didn’t know about my father having any specific condition. I’d heard him complain about doctors and heard the rattle of pills every now and again, but he never got into specifics either.

I asked him what this doctor did—if he had a specialty.

Dad repeated I should go to him. “As soon as you can.”

I found a listing for this Dr. Rabinowitz. No website, no social media, no reviews to be found, just an address in Hamden to confirm I had the right guy. A phone number.

I set up an appointment, not with the chipper-voiced young person I’d come to expect from doctor’s offices—the kind who seemed specifically trained to disarm you—but rather an old man’s sickly croak.

The office was situated in an old school remodeled into a miscellany of offices—an accountant here, a dentist there, an attorney. Most of them had glass doors with the business name on the front, but Dr. Rabinowitz’s office had a closed, plain white door with a black placard screwed in, just below eye level for me, that read Dr. Rabinowitz, no further clues as to what he might do inside and only the faintest sound of ticking from within.

I didn’t know if the closed door meant someone else was in a session with him. I looked at my phone and found I was twenty minutes early, so I figured I’d better wait. I scrolled through email and Facebook, until quite suddenly, I was only five minutes early and figured I was within my rights to knock, besides which, the way time had been evading me, I didn’t want to miss the appointment altogether.

A broad-shouldered, pot-bellied black man with a patchy white beard opened the door. He wore a white collared shirt and slacks, an unzipped, worn navy blue sweatshirt over it. He was the only one there, and all around him clocks. Digital clocks with glowing green, glowing red numbers; one with glowing blue background to offset black numbers. Analog clocks. Even an hour glass. And in the corner, the clock I supposed I’d heard most clearly from the far side of the door, an enormous grandfather clock that solemnly rang out a low bell tone on the hour.

We sat on barstools. There were no windows. It wasn’t a comfortable place, to say the least. As I’d learn, that wasn’t entirely beside the point.

Dr. Rabinowitz started out asking ordinary doctor questions—my height, weight, date of birth, occupation. He jumped to any history of mental illness in the family sooner than I would have expected. Finally, he asked why I’d come to see him.

I explained about my father’s referral and about the way time had started slipping on me and about the accident and—against my better judgment, but I got on a roll—about Julie and what I could only assume was the last dinner we’d ever have together.

He wrote down every answer on a yellow legal pad—no computer, no forms to fill out. He waited until I was done with my story to look up from his pad, to look at me again, then stooped to put the pad on its edge, against the floor, leaned against his stool. The pad teetered such that sheer gravity looked as though it might decide at any moment to tip it to the floor, let alone if Dr. Rabinowitz made one wrong move.

“Your father was right to send you,” he said. “You’re falling out of sync.”

I repeated the last three words.

“It happened to older generations, too, but it’s more common now. Some think that susceptibility to the condition may be hereditary.”

One of the analog clocks was shaped like a cat, it’s tail wagging at two second intervals, its eyes shifting from one side to the other each second.

“I’ll need you to pay attention.” At first, I thought Dr. Rabinowitz had caught onto my distraction with the cat clock, but I soon realized that he was still mid-lecture, that this was not a reprimand or even a separate thought, but part of a string of ideas. “The best chance at staying grounded, at working your way back into sync with the world is to pay as close attention as you can, to keep an eye on a clock as much as you can. This may mean making yourself uncomfortable. Consider a variety of means to keep yourself fresh. Focused. Hold your breath. Pinch yourself. Carry a tack to dig into your thigh. Do you understand?”

*

I understood Dr. Rabinowitz’s directions, if not the full nature or scope of my condition—how long I’d had it or the prognosis for recovery. Maybe he’d gone over some of that in the gaps that I missed while he was talking. I was too embarrassed to ask, and only thought afterwards about how absurd it was not to ask a doctor who diagnosed me with falling out of sync with the world to repeat something because I’d missed it.

Things got worse.

I tried following the doctor’s instructions. I carried a safety pin to poke myself when I could sense my attention wandering, and I avoided mindless scrolling on my phone.

Dr. Rabinowitz never offered any guarantees. On the contrary, I remembered him using a lot of words like can and may. I sensed an implication I was already too far gone.

I watched episodes of Friends on Netflix the next night. Not the best choice, for a show that was familiar and for which one episode bled into another. For which the streaming service played episode after episode without any intervention necessary on my part. But I liked the show. It was a source of comfort to play something familiar and funny.

One moment, it was dark except for the glow of my laptop propped on the coffee table beside the couch, and Chandler and Monica scrambled to keep their affair a secret. The next moment I was a on a still screen asking if I were still watching. I minor nuisance, built, I supposed so you didn’t waste bandwidth streaming or risk spoiling something for yourself if you fell asleep and woke up after something significant had happened.

It was light out. Was it possible I’d fallen asleep? The light was odd—shining through the west-facing windows the way it did in the evening, not the morning, so that it seemed less like I’d slept until morning than time had moved backwards to an earlier point in the day.

And I was famished.

I tore open a frozen beef and bean burrito and put it in the microwave, only vaguely registering that the digital display read 5:40. As the microwave hummed, I checked the date on my phone. Thursday, May 25. Eight missed calls, three voicemails, from a mix of the copy shop landline and my manager’s cell.

I lost track of days sometimes—even before I had any reason to think I was falling out of sync. Doesn’t everybody wake up now and again, convinced it’s Friday, when it’s really Tuesday? Wishful thinking. But this was different. I could remember the details of Tuesday, sitting behind the counter. I could remember when Old Mrs. Paul came in and wanted help copying flyers for a church rummage sale and picked the orange cardstock because she thought it looked fiery. I remember it was Tuesday because she talked about wanting the flyers in advance so she could read them over for mistakes, because she’d made a mistake advertising Easter mass and the pastor had been upset with her, so this time she wanted to leave an extra day before hanging them. You think Wednesday afternoon is early enough to advertise for Saturday, don’t you? I had no idea, but nodded along.

I confirmed it was Thursday. The Internet news sites were in agreement. I devoured the burrito in three bites. Could I have really gone the better part of two days without eating?

It was too late to go into the work that day. I went to bed early. I was tired—I hadn’t slept away the days, and I’d found missing time didn’t have the restorative properties of sleep. I triple checked I’d set an alarm so I could go in early the next day and try to explain myself. Maybe if I explained about falling out of sync I could fall under some sort of disability accommodation and keep the job. I wasn’t sure if that could work retroactively, after missing two days and after visiting a doctor’s office that didn’t offer any documentation of my illness besides a handwritten list of suggestions to keep me from falling out of a sync, and the hand-written receipt I meant to pass off to my insurance company in case I could get back any of the twenty dollars I’d paid him.

I didn’t so much wake as hear the alarm. Hours vanished again, not in a state of unconsciousness, but a blink of the eye.

I couldn’t let something like that surprise me, I knew. Not at the rate things were going. I got myself together as quickly as I could and fetched a binder clip from my kitchen table to pinch myself with through my pocket on the way into work and in case I needed it while I was talking to my boss.

When I got there, Mrs. Ellery was behind the counter. Of course she was. It’s not like there were endless reserves of employees. There was me and there was the deadbeat tenant Bud who rented the other half of her duplex and filled in for me when I needed a sub. She’d had me go through the farce of training one day, when it was awkward because everything I knew was so painfully self-explanatory, and more awkward yet because he watched me go through the motions of making a copy, and a slightly larger copy and loading paper with such a glazed over look and absence of recognition that I actually wasn’t sure he could follow my instructions. 

Bud mopped floors for the county in the mornings, so he wouldn’t be available at this hour to so much as unlock the front door. It was Mrs. Ellery on duty herself, or keep the store closed.

The store could have been closed that morning, of course, because no one was there. I thought I might offer that as some sort of explanation for my absence, or at least as a reciprocal dig if she not only fired me but attacked me more personally. Who cares about this job anyway, I might say.

But Mrs. Ellery wasn’t mean. She rarely had been, except to Bud, and it always registered that was more on principle than out of any true malice because she was letting him work off the debt of late or unpaid rent. “You’re here,” she observed, even tone, maybe even a hint of concern.

Mrs. Ellery always smelled like cigarettes. I’d never seen her with one and it must have taken restraint, to keep a private vice like that. It always seemed to me that people were all too eager to tell you what was wrong with them. She was a kind woman. She didn’t burden you with her troubles and was respectful of other people’s. I theorized she kept the copy shop going less for profit than for the service, mostly to old timers, who wouldn’t know where else to turn.      

For as nice as she was, for as good of a person as she was, for as much as she insisted I make myself a cup of coffee from the Keurig and sit with her, the outcome of that day’s meeting was what you’d expect. She reminded me of the times I’d been late and she’d forgiven me. 

A father and son duo came into the store. An old father and a young son with baseball cap too big for him that drooped over his eyes. They were there to make flyers because the kid’s dog had run away. There was something both antiquated and sweet there. That people still made handwritten signs with reward offers and a hard copy photo of the dog taped to it. I got up to help them. They’d need to lighten the copy several degrees for any chance at the photo coming across right. But Mrs. Ellery put a hand on my knee, told me to enjoy my coffee, and tended to the customers herself.

I hoped the boy found his dog. He didn’t look too upset, more fascinated and looking all around him at the copy shop. To be that young, when most things are still first-time experiences—there’s something to that. Maybe he could even find wonder in losing his dog for the first time. I liked the idea of that, and better yet that first taste of something coming back to you that you thought you’d lost forever.

I lost time again. I didn’t even see the boy leave, just found Mrs. Ellery seated opposite me again, even caught her mid-sentence—not that I needed the rest of it. “—two days. I need someone I can depend on.”

I shook her hand. Didn’t make a fuss. Nodded along with her final offerings about coming in to pick up my last paycheck and about how I was welcome back sometime later, after I got my life together. She was a nice woman.

*

One day, I had a beard.

Shortly after, I had an eviction notice for failure to pay rent, and before I could begin to pack my things, there were people there to take my things and to usher me out to the sidewalk because you had your chance to leave on your own.

I guess that’s how I wound up moving in with my father. I hadn’t ever been in the place he now called home. I vaguely remembered his new apartment building catering to his medical needs, and that he seemed cagey about not telling me what those medical needs were, so I didn’t press him.

I didn’t know how long I’d stay with him. I didn’t know how time moved anymore.

I thought the apartment would be something like Dr. Rabinowitz’s office with all the clocks, all of the implements of focus, all the attempts at clinging to world around us.

But timed moved differently there. My father gave me a hug when I came through the door. He helped me carry in what things I had with me, just a couple suitcases, four haphazardly packed boxes of whatever I could grab in short order. Nothing important. I found we didn’t worry how long it took. I found we didn’t talk about time, and there were no clocks at all in the apartment. My father kept the curtains drawn, so it was hard to even see, for sure, how much daylight there might have been.

This wasn’t a place to recover, to get a life back together on any normal terms. The word hospice crossed my mind, though that didn’t seem quite right either. For though both of us were removed from the world and objectively lurching closer to death, we were also living.

When we had all of my things in the apartment, I asked my father, “What do we do now?”

____________________________________________________________



Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Georgia with his wife and son. He has two full-length short story collections on the way: You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue from Duck Lake Books and Circus Folk from Hoot ‘n’ Waddle. He has also published three chapbooks: Autopsy and Everything After with Burrow Press, Distance Traveled with Bent Window Books, and The Leo Burke Finish with Gimmick Press. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.

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